N. Scott Momaday

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John Z. Bennett (review date Spring 1970)

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SOURCE: A review of House Made of Dawn, in Western American Literature, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1970, p. 69.

[In the following review, Bennett praises the literary and sociological aspects of House Made of Dawn.]

In academe, where there is a growing tendency to employ literary works as casebooks for social protest or ethnic studies, House Made of Dawn may encounter a curious fate. Because it deals with an interesting variation of the old alienation-theme, namely, the Southwest Indians' conflict with twentieth century America, Momaday's novel may be valued as a social statement rather than as a substantial artistic achievement.

The sociological bias, of course, is insidious insomuch as it tends to reduce the literary work to its thematic clichés: in this case, the Indian hero's ruinous journies into the white man's world, to war, to prison, to the monolithic city, Los Angeles, and his evident redemption in a return to the old ways; the inevitable "civilized" woman, Angela St. John, who discovers the primordial life-force in Indian ceremonials and in the wilderness; and the grandparents who are the last links to the old varieties.

These are the commonplaces of the alienation-theme; but the fact is that the novel clearly transcends them. Through a remarkable synthesis of poetic mode and profound emotional and intellectual insight into the Indians' perduring human status, Momaday's novel becomes at last the very act it is dramatizing, an artistic act, a "creation-hymn."

Yet even where social consciousness is significant in the novel, Momaday is far from being simplistic or unilateral, as a didactic reading might require. On the contrary, his polarities—animism and the machine—comprehend very complex and intricate human values. For example, the white man's world, as Benally the Navaho tells us, is not without its charm and joy, could one but learn how to join it; and alienation from his own Indian culture is a function of Abel's struggle for affiliation. In fact, Momaday's sophisticated understanding of the Indian world's potential for evil produces one of the most intriguing themes of the book.

House Made of Dawn is a mature and complex work, and therefore, if it must dwindle into a textbook of social protest, one might at least hope that its students will perceive not only its "sociology" and its "relevance" but also something of the art by which it rises above such narrow categories.


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House Made of Dawn N. Scott Momaday

(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.

The following entry presents criticism on Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn (1968). For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 19, and 85.

Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for House Made of Dawn (1968), Momaday considers himself primarily a poet. All of his writings, however, are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths. House Made of Dawn received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. It was the first novel written by an American Indian author to be so recognized, and its publication along with the award initiated what has come to be called a Native American Renaissance of literature.

Plot and Major Characters

The action of House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945, and February 28, 1952. The narration comprises an undated prologue and four dated portions set in the Jemez pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico (the prologue and sections one and four take place here) and the Los Angeles area (sections two and three). After the brief prologue which describes a young man running, the story proper opens on July 20, 1945, when a young man named Abel, an orphan raised by his traditionalist grandfather, Francisco, returns to Walatowa after serving in the second world war. Alienated and disorganized by war experiences (and also, it is suggested, by the early loss of his mother and brother and previous bouts of malaise), Abel is unable to make a meaningful reintegration into the life of the village. He takes a temporary job cutting wood for Angela St. John, a troubled, sensuous visitor to the area, and has an affair with her. He participates in a village festival and is singled out by a strange, ominous-appearing albino man. Meanwhile, the omniscient narration follows a parallel line with the village priest, Father Olguin, as he studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolas. On August 1, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the story ends the next day with Abel's grandfather Francisco, again alone, hoeing his fields.

The two parts of the second section are dated January 27 and 28, 1952. This section takes place in Los Angeles and centers on the character of Tosamah, a Kiowa storefront preacher and believer in the divine properties of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The January 27 section contains the first of two sermons by Tosamah, a long discourse on a verse from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." Tosamah maintains that language has been debased by white people and its power lost or corrupted. At the time that Tosamah is giving this sermon, Abel appears to be lying miles away, barely conscious after having suffered a terrible beating that has disabled his hands. The omniscient narrator moves back and forth in time presenting fragments of Abel's past: filling out forms in prison or afterwards; meetings with an earnest social worker, Milly, with whom he has an affair; life in prison; and testimony at his trial by Father Olguin and by a friend of his from the army. This section also contains a depiction of a peyote ceremony and introduces Ben Benally, who will play a significant part in Abel's eventual apparent rehabilitation. The January 28 section is composed almost entirely of Tosamah's second sermon, a passage in which Momaday meditates on his Kiowa grandmother's life and the history and passing of the magnificent Kiowa culture. (This piece was previously published as an essay in Ramparts magazine and was later incorporated into Momaday's autobiographical work, The Way To Rainy Mountain [1969].)

The third section is dated February 20, 1952, and is narrated by Benally. His rambling narration includes references to more of Abel's life in Los Angeles: his job at a box-stapling factory, his encounters with a sadistic policeman named Martinez, his participation in peyote services, and their occasional socializing with Milly. Benally also recollects the recent encounter with Angela St. John, who visited Abel in the hospital as he was recovering from the beating that left his hands broken; Angela, now the mother of a son, told Abel a story with a heroic theme, intimating that he reminded her of the hero. Benally also recollects going with Abel to a party in the hills outside the city on the night before Abel was to leave; Benally recalls that at this time he sang traditional songs from Navajo healing ceremonies, including the verses beginning the actual Navajo song called "House Made of Dawn."

The fourth section of the novel is very brief, comprising two sections dated February 27 and February 28, 1952. Abel returns to Walatowa in time to perform the appropriate burial rituals for his grandfather. Having seen to this duty, he begins to run into the dawn. The novel has moved in a circle, returning to the event depicted in the prologue.

Major Themes

House Made of Dawn takes its title from a translation of a Navajo song which is part of an extensive religious ceremony. The text of the translation is included in the novel as a song sung by Benally. The house referred to has been identified as one of the prehistoric cliff dwellings along the upper Rio Grande, and the song alludes to it as the home of the semi-divine personification of the dawn. Throughout the novel, important events and insights occur at dawn or sunrise. Also, throughout the novel Momaday incorporates ceremonial, mythical, and anthropological material from three different American Indian nations—Jemez Pueblo, Kiowa, and Navajo—into the texture of the contemporary story of psychological disintegration and renewal. House Made of Dawn is narratively complex, constructed on a principle of fragmentation and reconstitution somewhat like the modernist poems of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, which Momaday studied with noted American poet and critic Yvor Winters while in college and graduate school. The story has a circular rather than linear or strictly chronological structure: the prologue that begins it actually depicts the closing event of the book, and within each section linear time is reshaped through the wandering thought patterns of the narrators and central consciousness. Moreover, within the story are inserted various non-narrative verbal forms: besides the translated poem text mentioned above, there is another translated poem, fragments purporting to be the diary of a priest, pieces of bureaucratic/legal documents and testimony, and folk tales and legends. The reader's attention is repeatedly drawn away from the story and toward the author's literary devices.

Critical Reception

Consistently praised for his exploration of Kiowa concerns and traditions, Momaday is a seminal figure in both mainstream American and Native literature. House Made of Dawn is frequently taught in literature courses, and critics note that all his works are of great importance to Native and non-Native students alike. Momaday's blending of ancient and traditional material with contemporary and modernist techniques has reminded many critics of James Joyce, who combined Catholic religious and Irish political contexts with parallels to classical Greek mythology in such works as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Also, Momaday's use in House Made of Dawn of a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, multiple narrative voices, and flashbacks have earned him favorable comparisons with American novelist William Faulkner. Alan R. Velie has observed: "Momaday's achievement in House Made of Dawn is significant. He was able to employ the rhythms and imagery of his verse in creating a prose style that is both lyrical and powerful. It is no mean achievement to make the self-destructive, alcoholic Abel a sympathetic and complex character, or to portray the dusty pueblo of Jemez as a beautiful and exotic place…. House Made of Dawn, Momaday's first literary success, is also his masterpiece."

Marion Willard Hylton (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 60-9.

[In the following essay, Hylton presents a thematic analysis of House Made of Dawn, relating "the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from [the Native American] psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life."]

Abel was the land and he was of the land; he was a long-hair and from that single fact stemmed the fearsome modern dilemma explored by N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn. Abel is an Indian of the American Southwest, a member of a culture for whom Nature is the one great reality to which men's lives are pegged, the only verity upon which men may rely. Within this massive concept lie all the religion, all the mores and ethics, all the spiritual truth any man may require. To shatter the concept is to shatter the man. Momaday describes the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from this psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life. His anguished ordeal, heightened by his encounter with a white woman, endows him at last with courage and wisdom; he comes to know who he is and what he must do to maintain that identity.

In the Indian view, the universe or Nature is a great cosmological unity characterized by a harmony and oneness of all living things. Religion is not a thing apart from life, it is life itself. Oral communication is minimal; words are not needed between people sharing a common culture whose limitations and capabilities are known to all. Abel growing up in this timeless tradition is endowed with an understanding that transcends the ordinary limits of the word: "the boy could sense his grandfather's age, just as he knew somehow that his mother was soon going to die of her illness. It was nothing he was told, but he knew it anyway and without understanding, as he knew already the motion of the sun and the seasons."

After four centuries of Christianity, the essential way of life is unchanged. The people still pray to the old deities in their own language. They have assumed the names and some of the habits of their enemies but have kept their own souls and their own secrets: "in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting." Evil spirits as well as good are a part of the pantheon, and Momaday uses both in the unfolding of his remarkable novel. Slowly, by means of fragmentary glimpses into the lives of Abel, Ben, Francisco, and others, Momaday leads to an understanding not only of the Indian's dilemma in the modern world, but of Abel's particular torment and what brought it about.

Francisco, Abel's grandfather, has lived all his life on the reservation, within and a part of this culture. The important events of his life are totally alien to outsiders: the ritual killing of the bear to symbolize the coming of age, the marks of pollen made above the eyes of the bear, the arduous period of instruction preliminary to his participation in a sacred ceremony, and the healing powers he later acquires as a result of his growing "understanding." In many ways, Abel and his grandfather are much alike and only a very careful reading of some passages will make clear which of them is being referred to.

One is reminded that the diminutive of Abel, "Abelito", is much like "Abuelito", the affectionate term for grandfather. The resemblance is not accidental, of course; in a sense, his close attachment to his grandfather and the old ways is the burden Abel must struggle with during the course of the novel.

Abel is not a superficial human being. His suffering is profound and moving, as is the catharsis wrought by that suffering. In a striking passage describing the shoes Abel wears when he leaves the reservation, Momaday points up the differences in attitude: "they squeaked when he walked. In the only frame of reference he had ever known, they called attention to themselves, simply, honestly … but now and beyond his former frame of reference, the shoes called attention to Abel. They were brown and white and they were conspicuously new and too large … they shone; they clattered and creaked … and they were nailed to his feet. There were enemies all around, and he knew that he was ridiculous in their eyes." Years later, after a stint in the army, he returns, reeling drunkenly from the steps of the noisy bus into the arms of his weeping grandfather: "everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind." Fully twenty-four hours elapse before Abel begins to realize where he is, both geographically and culturally. Not until he walks out, just before dawn, to a high and distant hill where he sees the vast beauty of the valleys and remembers incidents from his youth, does a kind of peace come to him. But it does not last. Less than two weeks later, during the feast of Santiago, an evil spirit reveals himself to Abel, who, acting entirely within the Indian tradition, kills him.

The albino or, significantly, the white man, has been seen earlier as a figure of evil when Francisco heard whisperings from the corn and was afraid; after he left, the albino emerged or rather seemed to materialize from the green leaves. Since corn is life itself to the Indian, to hear an evil spirit breathing in the corn is a dangerous thing. A snake, or culebra, is likewise a symbol of evil, and when the albino threatens to turn into a snake, Abel's course is clear. Significantly, after his years in prison his attitude is unchanged. "They must know," Ben says, "that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance … for he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can."

Abel's real suffering and purgation begin after he leaves prison and wanders to Los Angeles. There he meets Ben, Milly, and Tosamah. Ben, like Abel, has been raised on the reservation but has managed to make an adjustment of sorts. Ben can compromise; he is willing to overlook evil or unkindness and is able to see good in most situations: "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all … You wonder how you can get yourself into the swing of it, you know?… And you want to do it, because you can see how good it is … it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast." Because Ben wants to be a part of it, he is willing to live on the fringe of white society, like a child outside a candy store window. When he speaks, one can clearly hear the voice of a lonely man: "this place is always cold and kind of empty when it rains," "you never have to be alone. You go downtown and there are a lot of people all around and they're having a good time." Ben has not yet admitted to himself that he is only an outsider; he feels the American Dream is his, too, and he is committed to pursuing it. "I could find someplace with a private bathroom if I wanted to, easy. A man with a good job can do just about anything he wants."

Tosamah (John Big Bluff Tosamah) is a very different sort of man. Like Ben he acknowledges his heritage but is not chained to it like Abel. "Priest of the Sun" is a key section for understanding the Indian concept of "The Word" as opposed to the Christian. Tosamah begins by stating in Latin, "In Principio erat Verbum." Caught up in the mystery of the words, he continues, "in the darkness … the smallest seed of sound … took hold of the darkness and there was light; it took hold out of the stillness and there was motion forever … it scarcely was; but it was and everything began." But at this point, his voice and attitude abruptly switch from that of a priest to that of a huckster, as he tells how this mystery was corrupted by a Christian interpretation: "But it was more than the Truth. The Truth was overgrown with fat; the fat was John's god and God stood between John and the Truth … and he said, 'In the Beginning was the Word …' and man, right then and there he should have stopped … Old John was a white man and the white man builds upon [the word], he adds and divides and multiplies the Word and in all of this he subtracts the Truth." Tosamah's bitterness can be heard in his parting words to his "parishoners": "Good night and get yours."

Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, is as much an outsider in white society as Father Olguin is in Indian society. The dry, mechanical Mass which Father Olguin conducts contrasts interestingly with the peyote ritual at which Tosamah presides, where the mysticism each participant comes to feel is translated into a moving and spontaneous prayer without the embarrassment of spoken prayer; it is part of the old tradition. The tears of one of the participants are not despised, they are accepted; weeping is no disgrace if the occasion calls for weeping. The Mass has the bread, the wine, the incense, the bell; the peyote ritual has the peyote buttons, the prayer sticks, the "makings," and the drummer. The Indian's ritual marking is with pollen, and the priest's with ashes. Tosamah reverts to a caricature of American speech in explaining the impact of peyote: "that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun," recalling the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

Where the Indian view is at one with Nature, one might say the Catholic view, as typified by Father Olguin and Angela Grace St. John, exists in spite of Nature; the basic difference would seem to doom in advance any hope of accord. Reflecting the missionary zeal which is characteristic of his faith, Father Olguin tries over the years to enlarge his small flock and to urge his parishoners away from the old ways. In the end, he comes to recognize tacitly that some old and final cleavage still exists which he can never bridge. He tries, however, to make the legal authorities understand, as best he can, what prompted Abel to kill the albino. Once again we see the clash of the two cultures: "I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us…. Yes, yes, yes. But these are the facts: he killed a man—took the life of another human being…. Homicide is a legal term, but the law is not my context; and certainly it isn't his…. Murder is a moral term. Death is a universal human term."

Both the parole officer and the Relocation people attempt to keep Abel out of trouble, but his problems only deepen. "They have a lot of words," as Ben says, "and you know they mean something but you don't know what … Everything is different and you don't know how to get used to it." Ben understands Abel's plight, and is compassionate. Tosamah understands and is contemptuous.

Ben and Milly literally keep Abel alive in his darkest hours. Where he has understanding based on knowledge, she has understanding based on love. "She was a lot like Ben. She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream and him—Abel; she believed in him." She also loved him; she gave him money, a place to stay, and ministered to his needs out of love. On a few rare occasions, she could even make him laugh. But Milly is gentle and vulnerable. And Abel is possessed by an evil spirit. They are drawn together by their awful loneliness, but it is not enough. All her experience had been a getting away from the land where his had been a returning. At the height of his suffering, her name echoes through his mind; only her name, and a question mark. Sadly, the name is remembered, but not the identity.

Abel sinks ever deeper in the white world's web. One night, too drunk and helpless to answer Tosamah's taunts, he sets out to seek some kind of release, to kill the evil spirit, the culebra, that has brought about his misery. Instead of exorcising the evil, he undergoes a mortal combat (presumably at the hands of Martinze, the sadistic cop) that leaves him broken and near death. "He had lost his place. He had long ago been at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void … The sea reached and waned, licked after him and with-drew, falling off forever in the abyss."

Abel, badly beaten and lying on the beach, is unable to see because of his swollen eyes. We remember that Father Olguin's vision is also poor and that the albino masks his weak sight with small dark glasses. All, in one way or another, "see" with difficulty. The albino's vision is clouded by evil, Father Olguin's by his Christian beliefs, and Abel's by not accepting his birthright. If Abel's suffering suggests that of Oedipus, then we might say that the grunion form a chorus, and it is no mean comparison. Momaday's evocation of the grunion metaphor seems singularly appropriate for the situation. They, like Abel, belong to the natural order of things; they respond from the tradition of centuries, only to fall victim to the wanton ways of the white man. Abel, too, has been beaten by an evil spirit of the white world and must somehow get back to his own environment in order to survive. "His body was mangled and racked with pain. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy." He has tried to do what seemed to him must be done: extirpate evil. But he has failed; in the white man's world, right and wrong are not the same, and the old values somehow do not apply. He remembers seeing, in his youth, the old men running after evil. Here, it is not the same. He knows at last that he must survive beyond his pain, and return to the life he understands.

Abel has indeed, "lost his place." A reason for his particular suffering lies in the ancient Indian belief that all secrets, even those of sorcery and evil, are divulged during sexual intercourse. Abel had lain with a woman, Angela Grace St. John, and both were altered by the experience.

When Angela comes to live at Los Ojos (The Eyes), she is a distant, disturbed woman. Her attitudes are as far as possible from the Indian's. She keeps herself coldly apart from human contact and "would have her bath and read from the lives of the saints." She despises her body and the child growing within her: "She could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the ravelled veins and gore upon her bones. And now the monstrous fetal form, the blue, blind, great headed thing growing within and feeding upon her … at odd moments she wished with all her heart to die by fire, fire of such intense heat that her body should dissolve in it all at once." To the suggestion of disharmony is added the hint of evil: Abel would not bargain, hence, "it remained for her to bring about a vengeance."

Their coming together is an epiphany for each of them; she draws from him a kind of vision she has never experienced before, a "knowingness" of who she is, and of her relationship to other living things and to life itself. But the evil spirit which has hitherto clouded her days now descends upon him. "Angela put her white hands to his body. Abel put his hands to her white body."

Father Olguin is the first to sense the change in her. He has seen her as an ally with whom he can share his world of words; a fellow outsider in the Indian world. But "she listened through him to the sound of thunder and of rain that fell upon the mountains miles away,… she had a craving for the rain … 'Oh, my God' she said, laughing, 'I am heartily sorry … for having offended Thee.'" Her laughter horrifies him almost as much as her confession.

When the sky darkens and the storm breaks, Angela no longer fears nor shrinks from Nature: she "stood transfixed in the open door and breathed deep into her lungs the purest electric scent of the air. She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past." From that moment on, evil stalks Abel's steps; the disharmony and alienation that had characterized Angela's life now infects his.

Not until years later, when she visits Abel in the hospital and, in effect, releases him, does the evil finally begin to ebb. As she speaks of her son, Peter, and the Indian tales he loves to hear, Ben remembers the stories told by his grandfather who spoke from the legends of his heritage. Abel understands; he does not speak, nor refer to her visit afterwards. Hearing Angela and seeing how she has changed has at last made clear to him just how and why he has lost his way.

House Made of Dawn is an intricately structured novel, and difficult to analyze. Time, for the Indian, is conceived not as a rigidly divided set of days, months, and years, but as experience and wisdom and knowledge, occurring today or yesterday or many yesterdays ago. Memory is the only immortality. Through memory history is transmitted from generation to generation. Memory, too, presents the novel; events from Francisco's past, or from Abel's, Ben's, or Tosamah's, are juxtaposed with events of the present moment, giving the reader a dimensional montage of thought and attitude.

Few of us suffer from our pasts as Abel must suffer. The Abel who comes back to the reservation to tend his dying grandfather is broken in body but healed in spirit. Wordlessly, he attends the last hours until death, then dresses the body according to the ancient ways. Summoned at night, the priest, significantly, is indignant over the time: "Good Heavens, couldn't you have waited until—Do you know what time it is?" By then, Abel indeed knows what time it is as far as his life is concerned, and he knows, too, that the particular hour of the day or night is of no consequence. Father Olguin, for all his good intentions, understands the Indian no better than his late nineteenth-century predecessor, Fray Nicholas, who, we learn from the old journal, was called on a similar occasion only after the Indian rites had been performed on a body.

After a long and bitter odyssey and much suffering, Abel has come home. He knows at last where he belongs in the scheme of things. During the long vigil before Francisco's death, he begins once again to feel a peace and a kinship with his heritage: "it was the room in which he was born, in which his mother and his brother died. Just then, and for moments and hours and days, he had no memory of being outside of it." When Abel leaves the mission, rubs himself with ashes, and goes on to join the other dawn runners, he is not only assuming his role as male survivor of his family, but also completing the final phase of his own spiritual healing. As he runs, as he becomes a part of the orderly continuum of interrelated events that constitute the Indian universe, Abel is the land, and he is of the land once more.

Principal Works

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The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman [editor] (poetry) 1965
The Journey of Tai-me (folktales) 1967
House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968
The Way to Rainy Mountain (autobiography) 1969
Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (nonfiction) 1973
Angle of Geese, and Other Poems (poetry) 1974
The Gourd Dancer (poetry) 1976
The Names: A Memoir (autobiography) 1976
The Ancient Child (novel) 1989
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (stories and poems) 1993

Carole Oleson (essay date Spring 1973)

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SOURCE: "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 59-78.

[In the following essay, Oleson analyzes the structure and symbolism of House Made of Dawn, paying close attention to the symbol of the earth.]

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

The landscape is of central importance, holy in itself, and closely associated with Momaday's theme in House Made of Dawn, as it is in The Way to Rainy Mountain, from which the above quotation was taken. The two books are complementary; taken together they each contribute to the meaning of the other. The leisurely contemplation that Momaday asks a man to give to the earth, he asks his reader to give to House Made of Dawn. A single reading of a book as richly layered in meaning, as intricately structured, as forcefully compressed through the poetic device of abrupt juxtaposition without transition as this one is, leaves one with a vague impression of emptiness. One must look for a long time to appreciate fully the subtleties of its form.

Some of Momaday's reviewers have commented on the lack of plot line, the indistinctness of the characters, the mistiness of the novel as a whole. Plot and character development are insignificant compared to the wealth of patterns woven into the narrative, the power of the meaning carried in the unifying symbol of the everlasting earth. It is appropriate to judge the book by the conventional standards of plot and character development only if in fact it is a novel in the conventional sense. The difficulty is in classification; House Made of Dawn is not a short novel about Abel, but a long prose poem about the earth, about the people who have long known how to love it, and who can survive as a people if they will cling to that knowledge. This can be made more clear through a detailed examination of the structure and use of symbolism in each section.

In the prologue the book begins where it ends, with Abel on February 28, 1952, naked to the waist and smeared with ashes, running in the annual long race of the black men at dawn. The prologue is thus a flash-forward to the final scene of the book. All that Momaday will tell us of the human condition is summarized on that one page of prologue, but we must go on to the beginning of the story and curve around to the end, then read again the prologue in order to understand what he is saying here. More exactly, there is neither beginning nor end, for like the circle of the horizon on the open plain, the narrative moves around without break as the reader turns naturally from [the last page back to the beginning] and the eye begins a second sweep of the horizon, this time with more awareness of what it sees.

At first we view from a distance the large expanse of land under the light of dawn. "Still and strong" are key words striking the theme that will be repeated and developed throughout the book of the everlastingness of the earth, the strength that comes precisely from changeless change, the unending repetition of the seasonal cycle.

Then, we move in closer to focus on Abel running, also a key symbol. Here we have not only the cycle of seasons (the traditional race is annual on the day when the sun rises from the "saddle" of the mesa), but also the cycle of generations, for the most important event of Abel's grandfather's life was his victory over Mariano in this race in 1889. Continuity with a culture 25,000 years old is precariously maintained as each generation teaches the following one the old way. Abel, running as Francisco ran, does not break the chain of his fathers, a chain which is his strength, not his bond.

Finally, Momaday deals more explicitly with the themes of hope and despair implied in such symbols as dawn, land, and the running figure, now small in the distance.

For a time the sun was whole beneath the cloud; then it rose into eclipse, and a dark and certain shadow came upon the land.

When the sun is hidden by a cloud, Abel becomes at first glance a pitiable figure running through vastness that makes it seem as if he were making no progress out of the shadow, seeming "very little and alone." Yet a cloud is not so big compared to the whole sky; nor will it cover the sun forever.

This is no "heartbreaking novel" as the blurb on the paperback cover states; its major symbols are dawn, everlasting earth, and runners able to outlast their pain—all symbols of hope which contain a prophecy of the Indian culture's prevailing ultimately. Nor is it the proud natives who are strangers in their land, but the latecomers who have never known it intimately.

The seven chapters of Part 1 are the first of several groups of seven. Seven is a sacred number: the four directions plus the two of the vertical axis (up and down) plus the center. Its repetition makes a pattern, particularly in the similarity and spacing of Abel's reveries in the second chapter and Francisco's in the second from the last chapter. Such precision reminds one of the geometric design woven into cloth.

Part 1's title, "The Longhair," refers to the reservation Indian; the term is used pejoratively by Tosamah chiding Abel for his reluctance to adapt to urban industrial life. Momaday plays with the word in Part 1 by means of a snare made from a long horse hair attached to a bent reed in the river. The bird snare is introduced in the first chapter as Francisco checks it to see if he has caught a brightly colored bird for his prayer plume. "The Longhair" closes with a short chapter in which Francisco, riding out to his fields, mourns Abel's arrest. By habit, he looks for the bird snare as he drives his mares by the river; it is sprung. Through position in the story, the snare becomes a symbol of the trap set for Abel. Abel has killed the albino because he almost mystically perceived him as an enemy. The context of his thought and action here is "longhair," for Abel refuses to recognize the Euro-American legal structure in which killing such an enemy is not encouraged. To act upon the traditional values is to suffer at the hands of the invader.

Enclosed between the two references to the snare which are about equidistant from the beginning and ending of Part 1 are, among other things, (1) Abel's reminiscences, (2) the story of Abel's affair with a bored young matron, Angela St. Martin, (3) a perceptive picture of the priest, and through an old journal, of his predecessor, (4) the drama of Abel and the albino, and (5) the clearest and most complete statement of the theme in the book. I will briefly discuss each part in that order, although (2), (3), and (4) are interwoven in the narrative.

(1) Abel's memories give us essential details about his life that help us understand how he feels about his family, the traditions of his people, the land and the creatures upon it. Particularly significant are the related tales of the Bahkyush people and Abel's mercy killing of an eagle.

About a century before, twenty Bahkyush survivors of persecution and plague had joined their distant kin, bringing with them four sacred and ceremonial objects which helped them remember that they were a people. Those Euro-Americans who think of Native Americans as an anachronistic people who belong nostalgically and safely to the past will probably take this tale as mere sentimentality—the heartbreak of being a proud stranger in one's own land again. But, taken in context with other portions of the book, the message is clear: Native Americans must cherish the concept of being a people, cherish the ageless traditions. Pride and faith in their heritage will bring a destitute people out of misery into a better age. A parallel scarcely needs to be drawn between the Bahkyush and all other tribes threatened with cultural extinction by the European invaders.

The Eagle Watchers Society, the principal ceremonial organization of the Bahkyush, takes Abel on an eagle hunt. When Abel strangles a captive eagle, we sense with a jolt the unacceptable difference to him between the mighty bird in flight (described in one of the most beautiful passages in the book) and the "drab," "shapeless," "ungainly" bird in the sack.

The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust. He took hold of its throat in the darkness and cut off its breath.

Those two abrupt sentences may give us some insight into the high suicide rate among young Native Americans today and also why we are never given more than a flickering image from Abel's memory of the six years he spent in prison. The years of his captivity are evidently almost cut off from his consciousness.

(2) As ironic as Abel's encounter with obtuseness and brutality in The City of the Angels is the name of the adulterous Angela St. Martin, containing both angel and saint. She is in the early stages of sacred motherhood, piously attends mass, and reads the lives of the saints. Yet there is no sting in the irony, for Momaday draws her with sympathetic, if slightly amused, understanding. Though certainly no intellectual—her reading is apparently limited to the lives of the saints—she has the gift of poetic vision.

He leaned into the swing and drove; the blade flashed and struck, and the wood gaped open. Angela caught her breath and said, "I see."

The episode with Angela is an exquisitely-drawn picture of war between the sexes, and also between the races, in which no one really loses anything worth keeping, unless the reader interjects a moralism that is not in the narrative. Angela's loss of face is only funny, not dramatic or pathetic, because she had planned to amuse herself at his expense and was caught, defeated by his patience, his long waiting without concession. There is probably a lesson behind the fun which corresponds to that in other more edifying examples of perseverance.

(3) Father Olguin fits no simple stereotype; he can neither be admired as a blessing to the people he serves—though he sincerely tries to be good to them—nor condemned as a curse, though he fails to appreciate the value of their culture. Because Father Olguin identifies with Fray Nicolás, we may assume that he shares the former priest's attitudes revealed in such journal entries as the following:

Tomacita Fragua died this late morning & again I was not called to it. But the son-in-law Diego came in the afternoon & gave me leave to make the burial. I saw they had finished with her according to their dark custom & there was blue & yellow meal about on the floor.

and in a letter:

[Francisco] is evil…. He is one of them & goes often in the kiva & puts on their horns & hides & does worship that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy. Yet he is unashamed to make one of my sacristans & brother I am most fearful to forbid it … Where is the Most Holy Spirit that he is not struck down at that moment? I have some expectations of it always & am disappointed. Why am I betrayed who cannot desire to betray? I am not deceived that he has been with Porcingula Pecos a vile one I assure you & she is already swoln up with it & likely diseased too God grant it.

Neither priest is conscious of the unholy spite and narrow prejudice in his attitude toward the people of Walatowa. The priests are more pitiable than reprehensible, for they are outsiders in the village, feeling rebuff but never understanding it, humiliated by the small role they play in the village life, hurt and bewildered by the people's unwillingness to reject their own religion in order to embrace Christianity more completely. The priests see themselves as models for the heathen, but the villagers relegate to them only a part of their religious traditions, adding Catholic mass to their ceremonial life while subtracting nothing of their own.

Father Olguin is also humorously out of touch with reality in his relationship with Angela. Proud of his ability to resist her strong attraction, he is reduced to childish fury when he realizes how easily she resists him. His celibacy is an almost-safe retreat like the safety of his bargain with the world to make a little place for himself in the Indian mission. Father Olguin is only half-blind, but then only half-seeing.

(4) If there is a mistiness in House Made of Dawn, the albino Indian is surely the center of the mist. Momaday refers to him as "the white man" in small letters, as if he were an ordinary, if striking, character. But there are signs that he stands for White Man: he is large, powerful, very skillful and brutal in contest; there is something unnatural about him, something repulsive to the point of horror in his huge face and lax lips. He wears dark-colored glasses as if his eyes were weak. An albino often has poor vision, making this an apt choice as symbol for hordes of white men who poured over the land, proving themselves insensitive and unseeing even when they were trying to be fair, which was not often. A sentence like:

Abel was not used to the game, and the white man was too strong and quick for him.

is heavy with double and even triple meaning, alluding possibly in a large historic sense to the land grab game played for centuries and still being played; or in a more immediate sense, perhaps to the game of making one's way in twentieth century America which Abel will play and lose in Walatowa, then in Los Angeles.

Mystery completely envelops the white man when in the first darkness of evening on July 28 he appears in the corn field, ominously watching Francisco finish a long day's hoeing. Francisco doesn't quite hear him, but he senses an "alien presence" which has been there a long time, recognized as evil.

(5) The chapter labeled July 28 begins with one of those passages of description that the hurried reader skips in his impatience to get on with the plot and character development. Yet nothing in the book is more vital to its theme than this passage. Momaday contrasts the wild animals that "have tenure in the land" and the "late-coming things"—the domestic animals. There is an implied analogy with Native Americans and Euro-Americans…. Domestic animals have a "poverty of vision and instinct" like Father Olguin's blind eye and the white man's weak eyes. They are "estranged from the wild land" like Milly's father (Part 3) in his war with the land he has come to hate.

The paragraph beginning, "Man came down the ladder" could serve as a thesis statement for the book. It says in part:

… as if the prehistoric civilization has gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn. For man, too, has tenure in the land; he dwelt upon the land twenty-five thousand years ago, and his gods before him.

Four hundred years is to twenty-five thousand years as a single cloud over the sun is to the vast dome of the sky. It will pass; the sun will shine through again. Momaday makes his intention clear in the next paragraph when he points out that the people of Walatowa have chosen carefully what they wanted to borrow from their conquerors, but haven't forgotten that they are enemies:

They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.

The theme is made still more concrete as Abel sheds the stress of his sojourn in the white man's world and once again finds himself attuned to his own. This harmonious state will soon be broken by the prison term, but he is destined to regain it in the last pages of the book.

Of the four parts, Part 2, "The Priest of the Sun" is the most like poetry in structure, requiring the reader's patience with a train of seemingly unrelated elements. For instance, it opens with a description of small fish having no first-level connection with the action of the book. The reader is forced to go to second level to understand what those fish have to do with what was a relatively straightforward narrative. If not already unbalanced, the reader will surely lose his footing when he comes to the sentence:

They hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon.

There is no precedent in the book for a comic rhythm like that; it is a freak even in its own paragraph in which the other sentences are as factual as a biology text. There is a precedent for the rhythm of that sentence, however, in our English heritage of nursery rhymes: the owl and the pussycat "dance by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they dance by the light of the moon."…

[The] fish reappear as suddenly as they were dropped, this time explained as a thought occurring to Abel. Abel's thoughts do not enlighten the reader at this point, however, for he is just regaining consciousness and we must wait for bits of information about where he is and what has happened to him as he gets things sorted out in his pain-crazed mind. Once we understand that he is lying on a beach with both hands broken, then we can see that the fish symbolize Abel, for "they are among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth." Abel at the moment is in the very posture of the fish who spawn upon the beach; he is prone on the dark, foggy beach with hands as useless to him as fins on land. Unable at first to stand up, he is defenseless and surrounded by enemies, the city dwellers who, except for two friends, range from indifference to savage hostility.

It may not be until after Part 3 that we fully understand the symbol in its larger sense. When Abel, or any other "longhair," leaves the reservation and migrates to the city, he is leaving his element to venture into a hostile environment very much as the fish leave their home in the sea to flop awkwardly on the beach, easy prey for anyone. With this in mind, the nursery rhyme sentence changes its comic quality to irony; those are Native Americans writhing in Anglo rhythms, but they are not mindless like the fish; they understand what is being done to them, therefore suffering more.

Structurally, this section, and indeed all of this chapter, is within the boundaries of poetry, outside the usual requirements of fiction. Its elements are juxtaposed like the blocks of a dry wall, without transitional mortar. Superficially there seems to be no connection at all between one passage and the next, but from a deeper perspective, there is nothing random about the order. This chapter has the power that can be compressed into two- or three-level poetry through vibrations created by the interaction of images jammed together as in (1) the fish, (2) Tosamah on the Word and (3) Abel lying unconscious, lost in a world of strange words. Another example is … where this poetic structure allows Momaday to get "He was afraid," and "He was not afraid, no, sir," close enough together to set up ironic vibrations.

The chapter is not merely a string of images that act upon each other, however; its unity comes from a theme of conflict between the Native and European Americans and from a pattern of repetition. The fish, the moon, the sea, and the Word run through the chapter like threads holding it together.

Abel's mental condition after being first inebriated and then severely beaten justifies the apparent fragmentation of the information, but I am inclined to believe that Momaday selected the time of Abel's regaining consciousness because it provided a rationale for hurling the assorted vignettes together, freed from the logic of fiction, bound by the very different and perhaps more demanding logic of poetry.

When the Priest of the Sun is introduced suddenly, he has no yet-known relationship to the characters we have met in Part 1. As in a symbolic poem, we must hold the elements in mind and wait for the whole of the poem to reveal the connections. The names are fascinating: John Big Bluff with its double reference to topography and deception, and Cristóbal Cruz with its pun on crystal ball, containing also the Spanish spelling of Christ and of cross. The two men make an entrance rather like the Duke and Prince of Huckleberry Finn with their shabby theatricals.

And yet the sermon on the Word is beautifully, powerfully, and for the most part, earnestly done. In character with the opposing elements bouncing off each other within Tosamah, the sermon goes from the drama of

It rose up in the darkness, little and still, almost nothing in itself—like a single soft breath, like the wind arising; yes, like the whisper of the wind rising slowly and going out into the early morning.

to the comedy of

Gracious me, I see lots of new faces out there tonight. Gracious me! May the Great Spirit—can we knock off that talking in the back there?—be with you always.

to the informality of

Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth. And, brothers and sisters, you have come here to live in the white man's world. Now the white man deals in words and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his ground, you are as children, mere babes in the woods.

Here we have the connection between the Word, Abel, and the fish. The Native American's respect for the sacredness of language—as Tosamah explains next with the tale of his grandmother—is so unlike the Euro-American's adroit manipulation of language (exactly like their contrasting attitudes toward land), that the Native American in the city is at the mercy of the Euro-American, as the fish on the beach are at the mercy of passersby. Much later, in Part 3, Ben will dovetail into this presentation of the Word when he discusses the newly relocated Indian's sense of loss at discovering:

They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same; they're different, and they're the only words you've got.

Again, the sermon on the Word is echoed in the passage describing Abel's trial six years before:

When he had told his story once, simply, Abel refused to speak…. Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it.

Powerless in a world of someone else's words, someone else's rule, Abel's holy vision comes to him as he lies delirious on the beach. He sees himself getting down to his knees to put his ear on the ground and listen to the mystic race of the "old men running after evil."

The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

Momaday uses this vision to exhort the people to remain faithful to the old ways and outlast invaders' temporary dominance, saying here that one must recognize evil, not pretend that evil is either neutral or good (as Ben does), but one cannot clear the world of it. One must give way to its power as water gives way to force, but never lose a sense of the difference between good and evil. And outlast evil.

Abel is on the edge of this awareness that will make him spiritually whole and strong again. But in the meantime he is also "on the edge of the void." He has lost "perspective, proportion, design in the universe"; he has lost meaning, dignity and calm; "the world [is] open at his back." Described earlier as an alien world, the sea is here the void, not a passive void waiting disinterestedly for him to fall into it, but an active void seeking to pull him in.

In Part 2 basic information is sparingly slipped in through seemingly insignificant statements; consequently, the reader is quite likely to feel disoriented throughout "The Priest of the Sun" the first time through. Most readers have to wait until Part 3 to get relationships straightened out. For instance, with jarring poetic juxtaposition, Milly's questionnaire is inserted as if in a word association test. Abel thinks of the sea, the abyss, the helpless fish and the prying social workers in one logical train of thought. But the reader does not know that it is Milly's questionnaire yet, or even suspect the existence of Milly at this point. Later, she herself is thrown into the story via Abel's erratic memory. First we learn that she is an Idealist and then we learn that Abel made love to her. We must accustom ourselves to the flight pattern of a mosquito as one paragraph ends with a remembered sexual orgasm and the next begins with an awareness of the sea and his pain as Abel comes around again.

Perhaps the most significant part of the peyote prayer service inserted in Part 2 is Ben Benally's vision of blue and purple horses and a house made of dawn. Also tending toward hope for the restoration of meaningful existence is Tosamah's going out into the street to blow the eagle whistle in the four directions, serving notice "that something holy was going on in the universe."

Another significant passage in this part is Milly's story of her childhood. Because Milly's father is presented through the eyes of a loving daughter, he is handled with compassion and understanding. Yet he stands in stark contrast to Francisco to the disadvantage of the former.

The earth where we lived was hard and dry and brick red … and at last Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own very personal and deadly enemy.

He expressed his love for Milly by going out daily to fight the barren land and by giving everything he had to get her away from it even at the cost of being separated from her. Francisco, on the other hand, taught his grandsons to study and revere the land. He did not consider himself pitted against it, but in partnership with it. He laid a blessing on the corn as he left in the evening; he lived by the great organic calendar. Without rancor or unfair method, Momaday illustrates these contrasting attitudes in a way that indicates the superiority of the Native American's relationship with earth and the pathetic state of the Euro-American, alienated from earth.

The last of this long, difficult chapter is the story of Abel's torturous journey back to Ben's apartment, although, of course, we do not know at this point his destination or whether or not he makes it. Moon, beach, and the fish back in the depths of the sea are the final image.

The second chapter of "The Priest of the Sun" is much more simply structured and needs little analysis for my purposes. The entire chapter is a quoted sermon by Tosamah which, while valuable to our understanding of Kiowa thought, is not difficult to follow; we can see clearly the philosophy of man's sacred bond to the land, his place in the pattern of the universe that includes the other creatures and establishes his kinship even with the stars of the sky. Interestingly, this chapter appears as the introduction of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Different as the two books are in structure, they meet in this chapter which they share.

In summary, "The Priest of the Sun" is a title charged with the positive force associated with the source of all life and yet this is the section which depicts Abel at his most sunless moment. Literally, his chances of ever seeing another sunrise are very slight. Figuratively, he is at his low point physically, mentally, emotionally. Nevertheless, a new dawn is coming.

But before the dawn runner, the night chanter. The Night Chant, a major Navajo ceremony of nine days' duration, is performed only after the first killing frost. Abel's spirit has been severely "frostbitten" twice since coming to Los Angeles: the humiliation suffered at the hands of Tosamah and that inflicted by Martinez in Abel's first encounter with him. But the second encounter with Martinez is the killing frost leaving him broken in body and soul, the life drawn back into the roots of his being for safekeeping until the warmth of spring lets him live again. The Night Chant is a healing ceremony, arranged and paid for by the friends and family of the person who is ill.

Part 3, "The Night Chanter" is one long chapter, broken several times by Ben's interior monologues, the three lengthier ones in second person as if he were talking to himself. The rest of the chapter is Ben speaking directly to the readers, blessing us with details which clear up the confusion of Part 2.

Ben is the night chanter, the Singer, in the sense that he sings the sacred songs to Abel and interprets their meaning to him, thus performing in his modest way the function of priest, preserver of the sacred ceremonials. Ben as priest or Singer contrasts sharply with both Tosamah and Father Olguin (and Fray Nicolás). In the sermons quoted, Momaday gives Tosamah credit for his own fine artistry and even loans him his own grandmother, yet Tosamah as a character is not entirely admirable. He enjoys verbally tormenting his flock. Abel needs help, but the Priest of the Sun is among the pack nipping at his heels. Father Olguin probably does less harm and also less good than Tosamah because the priest does not understand Abel's situation well enough either to help or hurt him. Tosamah knows how to explain the religious dilemma of the twentieth century Native American as well as he knows how to "get under the skin" of a relocated reservation Indian. He does both. Ben, on the other hand, does not have claim to the titles and honors of the priesthood. Because he is concerned about his distant kin and best friend, Abel as a person, he shares with him the comforts of their ancient religion as naturally as he shares his home, food, and overcoat.

He is not an intellectual like Tosamah; he does not think about how Navajo or Kiowa philosophy can speak to industrial civilization. Instead, he tries not to think about it because it mixes him up. It is Ben who has the vision at the peyote ceremony; he lives his religion on a level deeper than the intellect, the level of spirit and emotion. And in the spiritual poverty of the City of the Angels, Abel's need for the precious traditions and songs is great. Ben apparently has made his place in the white man's world in the white man's way—by keeping his religion tightly locked up in its compartment, away from his work-a-day life:

And you want to do it [get yourself into the swing of city life] because you can see how good it is. It's better than anything you've ever had; it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast…. You go up there on the hill and you hear the singing and the talk and you think about going home. But the next day you know it's no use; you know that if you went home there would be nothing there, just the empty land and a lot of old people, going no place and dying off.

and again:

It's a good place; you could fix it up real nice. There are a lot of good places around here. I could find someplace with a private bathroom if I wanted to, easy. A man with a good job can do just about anything he wants.

and yet again he lectures himself:

It's a good place to live. There's always a lot going on, a lot of things to do and see once you find your way around. Once you find your way around and get used to everything, you wonder how you ever got along out there where you came from. There's nothing there, you know, just the land, and the land is empty and dead. Everything is here, everything you could ever want.

Sensitive to the feelings and needs of others as he is, responsive as he is to the rhythms and images of the old songs, Ben deadens his mind and violates his soul trying so desperately to convince himself that the material values of industrial society are worth dedicating one's life to. His rewards for industry and dependability are an airless room, an occasional escape in alcohol from the meaninglessness of being a replaceable bolt in a huge machine, and police protection in the person of Martinez, who can rob or beat him for amusement whenever he likes. Ben can watch other people having fun if he gets lonely; he can pretend that his longings are only a sensible desire for things that he can buy on credit; he can tell himself over and over that the sacred land is dead and the old way gone forever. Momaday, on the other hand, has been saying that the old way is not dead, but sleeping, and soon it will emerge to continue its development.

The prayer song, "House made of dawn" is another key to our understanding of the theme of the book, but a key that is probably in the hands of only its Navajo readers. The rest of us can do some speculating, keeping in mind that our errors may be gross. The song is a prayer to a male deity for recovery from a "spell" which would seem to be anxiety, depression, mental pain. It has on the believer who sings it roughly the effect that the twenty-third psalm has on the devout Christian:

      I fear no evil; / for thou art with me,
      Thy rod and thy staff, / they comfort me.
      You have taken it away for me;
      Happily I recover.
      Happily my interior becomes cool.

Surely the song loses much of the subtle turn of language in translation, but still it carries something of the feeling for order in its pattern of repetition and variation that may be the model for Momaday in his use of repeated phrases.

"Happily my interior becomes cool…. May it be beautiful all around me. / In beauty it is finished." Abel is at the low point of his illness, but close now to recovery; his memories are of home. He will begin again on the land that goes on forever, where nothing really changes.

The first chapter of Part 4 is largely devoted to the six memories of Francisco as his mind clears each dawn. In the first we may get some help with the difficult concept of a house made of dawn. Rather than dismissing it with a snort as a "broken-backed title" [as William James Smith did in Commonweal LXXXVIII (20 September 1968)] we can begin with the skyline of the black mesa as the house of the sun. From there it is easy to see the sun's house as made of dawn when the sun rises over the mesa's edge, as made of evening light, dark cloud, male rain, dark mist, female rain, pollen, and grasshoppers at appropriate times. The associations of each word would greatly increase our understanding of the symbolism, but that kind of analysis should be done by a Navajo scholar, or at least by a student of Navajo culture. There is, I believe, an entire level of the book that remains unseen by those of us who do not know the languages and legends of the people depicted. Mr. Momaday has given us some help in both his books, but much more is needed before outsiders can fully appreciate all the subtleties of House Made of Dawn. We can find the symbols by the emphasis given them, but we cannot read all the levels of their meaning once we have found them.

The importance of the house of the sun is indicated as Francisco tells the little boys to learn the contour of the mesa as they know the shape of their hands:

… and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time….

But his grandsons knew already; not the names or the strict position of the sun each day in relation to its house, but the larger motion and meaning of the great organic calendar itself, the emergency of dawn and dusk, summer and winter, the very cycle of the sun and of all the suns that were and were to come.

House Made of Dawn is a story of human thought, action and emotion placed in the organic patterns of the earth, sun, and moon. Man is not a self-contained whole whom the universe serves, but a part of a larger whole. He finds himself only by relating to the universal scheme. He loses himself by boxing himself up in the city ("The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness.") and dedicating his life to obtaining things. A luxury apartment and an executive position are but a larger-scale version of Ben's pitiable existence.

In the second memory, the story of Francisco's (and the colt's and half-grown bear's) coming of age illustrates the sacredness of man's proper relationship to earth's creatures.

And he did not want to break the stillness of the night, for it was holy and profound; it was rest and restoration, the hunter's offering of death and the sad watch of the hunted, waiting somewhere away in the cold darkness and breathing easily of its life, brooding around at last to forgiveness and consent; the silence was essential to them both, and it lay out like a bond between them, ancient and inviolable.

There is a vast difference between this "ancient and inviolable bond" and the impersonal relationship between the man behind the air hammer and his hundreds of victims each day in the assembly line of the slaughter house.

In the third memory, the strangeness of Porcingula and her mother, Nicolás teah-whau, is compounded by the enigma of their names. Porcingula is also the name of the wooden statue of Maria de los Angeles, patroness of the Bahkyush; Nicolás is also the name of the priest of the mission at the time of Francisco's youth. The fourth memory is of the mystic race of the dead that Francisco takes his grandsons to hear. In the fifth memory, Francisco becomes a respected member of the clan as he plays the drums well. As the dancers move out they are so attuned to each other and the beat that there is a perfect chain of motion. When Francisco changes drums, there is no minute loss of timing. Both are demonstrations of the values of cooperation and harmony.

The sixth memory, of Francisco's moment of glory in the race, is Momaday's primary symbol after dawn itself, related to it since the race is run at dawn. Francisco has made a misjudgment which should have finished him, but instead of collapsing, he runs "beyond his pain" to win.

The final chapter is a packed three pages. Francisco dies just before the seventh dawn. There is a vague likeness between God's creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh and Francisco's articulating the high points of his life for six dawns and expiring on the seventh.

Our last glimpse of Father Olguin is of his "peering out into the darkness" shouting, "I understand! Oh God! I understand—I understand!" And he really tried.

The climax of the book is a paragraph of incomparable beauty, beginning without emotion in very simple language, ending in the poetry of sound, color and motion that gives form and meaning to life.

He came among them, and they huddled in the cold together, waiting, and the pale light before the dawn rose up in the valley. A single cloud lay over the world, heavy and still. It lay out upon the black mesa, smudging out the margin and spilling over the lee. But at the saddle there was nothing. There was only the clear pool of eternity. They held their eyes upon it, waiting, and, too slow and various to see, the void began to deepen and to change: pumice, and pearl, and mother-of-pearl, and the pale and brilliant blush of orange and of rose. And then the deep hanging rim ran with fire and the sudden cold flare of the dawn struck upon the arc, and the runners sprang away.

In the last long paragraph Abel re-enacts Francisco's race, running in spite of soreness from the near-fatal beating not quite a month before. Derivatives of "run" appear more than a dozen times in the passage, giving the sense of an endless drum beat, an eternal continuum of ash-blackened men running, rather than a single act with a beginning and end. Singing under his breath, "he went running on the rise of the song." House Made of Dawn is a book of courage, faith, and hope for a "new world coming" which will be a dynamic, not static, continuation of an old world's wisdom and order. "In beauty it is finished."

Further Reading

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Trimble, Martha Scott. "N. Scott Momaday (1934–)." In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, pp. 313-24. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Provides an overview of Momaday's life, a discussion of the major themes of his works, critical reception of his writings, and a listing of primary and secondary sources.


Antell, Judith A. "Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle through Male Alienation." The American Indian Quarterly XII, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 213-20.

Examines Momaday's House Made of Dawn, James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney, and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, arguing that their treatment of the alienated Native American male underscores the role and power of Native American women in tribal communities.

Lincoln, Kenneth. "Comic Accommodations: Momaday and Norman." In his Indi'n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America, pp. 280-308. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Discusses Momaday's use of humor, irony, caricature, and the Trickster figure in House Made of Dawn. This chapter also includes an examination of these and similar elements in Howard Norman's novel The Northern Lights.

Scarberry-García, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of "House Made of Dawn." Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990, 208 p.

Provides essays on the motif of the twin, animal imagery, Native myths, and the theme of healing as presented in House Made of Dawn. The critic notes: "This study attempts to interpret the dialectical relationship between the text and the cultural worlds that engendered the text by examining the ethnographic record as it pertains to Navajo, Pueblo, and Kiowa events in the novel."

Harold S. McAllister (essay date Winter 1974–75)

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SOURCE: "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 115-25.

[In the following essay, McAllister provides a character sketch of Angela Grace St. John and examines religious themes, images, and allusions in House Made of Dawn.]

Angela Grace St. John is one of the most intriguing characters in Scott Momaday's novel, House Made of Dawn. It seems as if Momaday intended for her to have more thematic importance than is immediately apparent. Her thoughts are one of the centers of "The Longhair," and her affair with Abel suggests that she will have some influence on his future. Yet the major action of the novel, the murder of the albino, has no direct relation to Angela, and after confessing her adultery she disappears almost entirely except for two brief appearances in "The Night Chanter." With her Laurentian lust for dark flesh, she is sufficiently stereotyped to offend some female readers. If Angela is no more than a stereotype, she is a flaw in the novel, and if her significance does not extend beyond her brief but suggestive appearances on the forestage, then the novel is less well structured than a fine piece of fiction should be. There are many clues throughout House Made of Dawn which indicate that Angela is indeed more important than she seems and which connect her to the central theme of the novel, the way of salvation. Many of these clues relate to her Catholicism; some of them even indicate a symbolic identity with the Virgin Mary.

House Made of Dawn is filled with arcana, some of it coherent, some either incoherent or primarily of private significance to Momaday. There seems to be no strictly literary significance, for instance, to the very suggestive fact that Abel's age at the end of the novel is approximately the same as Momaday's when he finished it or that February 27th, 1952, one of the last dates in the novel, is Momaday's eighteenth birthday. One of Tosamah's sermons, delivered on January 26 and 27, 1952, had been published by Momaday as a personal reminiscence in the January 26, 1967 issue of The Reporter. A string of details, including the names of Angela St. John, Juan Reyes Fragua, and John Big Bluff Tosamah, links St. John the Evangelist to the novel. Tosamah's sermon on "The Gospel According to St. John" is delivered on the feastday of St. Polycarp, John's beloved disciple, and the "Rainy Mountain" sermon occurs on the feastday of St. John the Eloquent, author of the eighty-eight homilies on the Gospel of St. John. Dates and their significance form another set of "coincidences": July 20, the first day of the novel, is the anniversary of a cultural crisis for each of the three Indian nations most important in the novel; Kiowa, Navaho, and Jemez Pueblo. Twice Momaday mentions the day of the week; in each case his matching of day and date is correct, and February 27, 1952, was Ash Wednesday. The dates of the communications from Father Nicolas form a pattern based on the sanctoral cycle and the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and that pattern is a commentary on Nicolas's character.

Lending coherence to these apparently disjointed facts is not my present purpose; some of them may be immediately illuminating to readers of the novel, others much less so. What is surely clear, however, is that Momaday's novel is very carefully constructed and that Catholicism plays a much greater role in it than a first reading might suggest. Even disregarding such obvious items as the presence of two priests, four church services, and two fiestas, or the selection of names like Abel and Angela Grace St. John or Francisco and Porcingula, there remain details that illustrate Momaday's concern with making Christianity and, more particularly, Catholicism part of the fictive world of House Made of Dawn. Angela assists at a mass which is "a feast of Martyrs," with "scarlet chasuble." Waiting for Abel, she reads "from the lives of the saints." In at least three cases, Father Nicolas quotes the appropriate Gospel for the day's Mass at the beginning of his journal entry (November 22, December 25, January 5) and once he quotes a very pertinent section of the Credo.

This information suggests that House Made of Dawn may be a Christian morality play; its subject is spiritual redemption in a squalid, hellish temporal world. The Christianity of the novel is unorthodox, like the Catholicism practiced at the pueblos of New Mexico. It shares the chthonic, carnal nature of Pueblo Catholicism illustrated so well by Margot Astrov's description of a Christmas Mass at San Felipe:

When I reached the sanctuario to give my little offering, I set eyes on the most unexpected sight of my life. Maria and Jose were lying in a bed on the altar, offerings of bread piled at their heads. The Indian in front of me was just lifting the bedcover gently … and then kissing Maria, lightly, but with great devotion.

Abel requires reconciliation with his death, reunion with his culture; the spiritual redemption he ultimately finds through a return to his own place, his own center, at Walatowa. Angela comes to a similar peace with her own culture; she is saved through her affair with Abel and her contact with the Pueblo Indians, who teach her to accept her body and its needs. She shows Abel the path of salvation, serving as the mediatrix between his lost soul and the culture he is seeking to rejoin. Like the Virgin, she is not a savior but a model of salvation.

Among the structures of the book is a system of analogies between Angela and the Virgin Mary; the system begins with her name: since Mary was given to St. John's safekeeping after the death of Jesus, Angela's last name is appropriate, and her middle name may remind us of "Hail, Mary, Full of Grace." It is her first name that carries the most complex references. She is Angela because Our Lady of the Angels is the patroness of both her home, Los Angeles, and Walatowa. Her first name serves the double purpose of underlining her place of origin and hinting at some connection with the Virgin. Further analogies occur in the text; the last major one develops a thematic center of the book.

When she comes to visit Abel in the hospital, she recounts to him the story she likes to tell her son

… about a young Indian brave. He was born of a bear and a maiden, she said, and he was noble and wise. He had many adventures, and he became a great leader and saved his people. It was the story Peter liked best of all, and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it.

Though Ben, who recounts the incident, recognizes that the story is "secret and important to her," he misunderstands the reference to Abel; he thinks Abel is the son in the story, but he is the father. In their love scene, Angela imagines Abel as a "great Bear." Though she is pregnant by her white husband, she fears and hates the fetus. Her story is the myth of Peter's birth, and Ben's Navaho version of a similar myth makes it clearer. Ben is reminded of the Mountain Chant story, of two girls who are seduced by a bear and a snake. The snake does not impregnate his lover, but the bear has a child by his and begins a generation of bearmen. If Abel is the bear, then Martin St. John, Angela's husband, should somehow be a snake. The witch of "The Longhair" was a "white man" and a snake, and Abel's assailant in "The Priest of the Sun" was a white man named Martinez and nicknamed "culebra" or rattle-snake. These parallels establish a clear connection between these two characters and Martin St. John; the implications of these correspondences is that Peter's white father is spiritually sterile, like the sterile snake of the Navaho story, and Peter's spiritual father is Abel. In Angela's mythmaking, her son becomes the savior Christ. Like Christ, Peter has dubious parentage; like Christ, he has a physical father and a spiritual father; and like Christ, he is to "save his people." That Peter's "people" are white adds an ironic overtone to this complex system of meanings and associations. But Abel's role in Angela's myth of her own transfiguration is clear. The great bear is a new agent of divine impregnation when it mounts her in the body of Abel.

Smaller, less important, but provocative contact points between Angela and the Virgin occur in the early part of the novel. She first appears on July 21, the feast of two Marys—the Virgin because it is Saturday, Mary Magdalene because the latter's regular feast falls on Sunday the twenty-second and hence must be celebrated on Saturday. Angela's appearance in the novel is immediately preceded by the ringing of the Angelus, a hymn of the Virgin. Later Momaday reveals rather circuitously the exact date of her arrival at Walatowa. Of July 25 and the Benavides house he says:

It was no longer the chance place of her visitation, or the tenth day, but now the dominion of her next day and the day after, as far ahead as she cared to see.

"Visitation" is the key word, referring to the visitation of a priest and to Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. "Dominion" is also a key word, with its religious connotations. But the strange fact is the selection of days. If July 25th was the tenth day, then Angela arrived on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, July 16th. And the day on which this information is revealed is July 26th (it is after midnight), the feast of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.

One's immediate reaction to this data might be that Angela is a blasphemous caricature of Mary, but in fact she represents a revision of the orthodox mother of God, and the form of that revision suggests the form of Abel's salvation. Angela's physical appearance changes to dramatize the revision: when she first arrives at Walatowa, Father Olguin is attracted to her because she seems a proper type of the Virgin. She is beautiful but not sensual; her beauty is of the spiritual or ascetic sort. She is all black and white, with black hair and pale skin, pale nails, pale lipstick. She is thin though not unattractively so. She is, in fact, a-sensual, a hater of flesh and disgusted with the workings of her own body, which she speaks of in terms drawn from the anatomical and physiological preoccupations of a doctor, like her white husband:

She could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the raveled veins and the gore upon her bones … She did not fear death, only the body's implication in it. And at odd moments she wished with all her heart to die by fire, fire of such intense heat that her body would dissolve in it all at once. There must be no popping of fat or any burning on of the bones. Above all she must give off no stench of death.

Her affair with Abel changes her attitudes, Olguin's attitude toward her, and even her appearance. When she reenters the novel, near the end, she is no longer black and white but "golden," "silver," and "copper." Her child is no longer a "monstrous fetal form … feeding upon her," but an object of almost religious adoration. And when she confesses to Olguin, immediately after making love to Abel, her confession is "far from desperate, underlain with perfect presence"; she confesses as a way of informing Olguin and of deflating his pretensions of understanding the Indians, rather than from a sense of sin. While Olguin is with her and after he departs in a rage, she communes with the rain, craving its touch and listening to it instead of him:

She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past.

Through the agency of her affair with Abel, Angela achieves the reconciliation of flesh and spirit which, ironically, Abel is seeking. The new savior is born of a sensual mating with a bear, not through the chaste agency of a dove. The virgin is not a virgin but adulteress, since Angela's spiritual lover is a sensate being. This integration of flesh and spirit is represented by Angela's transformation into a chthonic mother in the latter part of the novel, and her return to her own roots, to Los Angeles, points the way of Abel's salvation. Angela accepts the real world into which she must fit, and Abel must return to Walatowa for the same spiritual peace. Angela sustains her life with a self-fulfilling myth, the "lie" of Peter's paternity, and Abel must, in his fashion, create or adopt a myth to sustain himself.

Bleak and painful though the conclusion may be, clearly the implication of the final pages of the novel is that, for Abel, to live in holy poverty is better than to subsist in Los Angeles. Ben Benally, a Navaho who has "made it" in the big city, illustrates the hollow merits of low income living. He protests that in the Indian Southwest, "the land is empty and dead" and full of "a lot of old people, going no place and dying off," a view explicitly contradicted by the narrator. Ben talks of opportunity in Los Angeles, of getting "money and clothes" and "going someplace fast." Yet he has one Goodwill coat, which he gives away in a futile gesture of Christian charity; he lives in a flat with cobwebs and soggy floor. In this surreal environment, "it's dark all the time, even at noon, and the lights are always on. But at night when it rains the lights are everywhere." Even his wages are at the mercy of a sadistic policeman's whims. He sits alone in his room for some fifty pages of text, yet says of his town, "You never have to be alone," adding that you can always go downtown and mingle with the crowds of white shoppers—though they are people whose talk "you can't understand." Even Ben's sexual aesthetics are distorted by his environment. The beautiful women of Momaday's Southwest are characterized by slimness and grace, girls like Francisco's Porcingula, Abel's Angela, and even Ben's girl Pony. But in Los Angeles Ben says of Manygoats' girl, "She was goodlooking, that girl—you know, great big breasts" and he wonders at Abel's interest in Angela because "she was goodlooking, all right, but she wasn't young or big anywhere and I couldn't see anything to get excited about."

In spite of the consolations of peyote and sing-parties, even an enterprising go-getter like Ben leads a bleak, barren, and dehumanizing life in Los Angeles. Through the entire "Night Chanter" runs a thread of defensiveness and homesickness. In rainy Los Angeles, one can have money if he pays the price, as Ben does, but perhaps money without spiritual sustenance is as worthless as rain falling on asphalt streets. Water is wealth in New Mexico; rain is the greatest blessing of God in Indian country. But in the white world, as represented by Los Angeles, the rain is wasted; it ruins floors, ceilings, beds, and it fertilizes nothing.

It might appear that Milly, Abel's white girlfriend in the city, represents a way of coming to terms with the white world. But Milly offers a merely temporal assistance. As a social worker, her primary concern is with Abel's secular well-being. She offers the same stagnant life that Ben is trapped in:

… Milly believed in tests, questions and answers, words on paper. She was a lot like Ben. She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream …

Milly offers no more than the illusion of an escape; there is nothing she can do for Abel's soul, because she doesn't understand his spiritual needs. She can't even share her own heritage with him, because she comes from a childhood more painful, more barren, than his own. She, like Angela, has a myth of her motherhood, but hers is founded on the terrible, nihilistically final death of her daughter Carrie. Neither Milly nor Angela can offer Abel any relief from his physical situation. To stay with Milly means to become another Ben, cut off from all but the most meager spiritual benefits, living in too much rain, with enough money to stay drunk but not enough to escape a private, one-room ghetto, talking about getting ahead but running in place, a victim like the helpless grunions Abel imagines on the seashore. Not even Angela can intervene to save him. No real relationship is possible between her and Abel, since for Angela their relationship is not real or social, but mythic, something she has created from the raw material of her experience with him, and the myth can only be sustained in his absence. Her salvation is parallel to, rather than equal to, his; Abel must learn to live in his native world, just as Angela learns to function in her world.

Angela has learned to let her mind and body move evenly together; she alone of all the women is a successful mother, and aside from Tosamah's grandmother, Aho, only she can create nurturing myth and recognize its value. Milly, Porcingula, Abel's mother, all in some way fail their children. Of the three young men in the novel—Ben, Abel, and Tosamah—only Tosamah has achieved a significant melding of flesh and spirit and "seen to the center of the world's being." He attributes his good fortune to the teaching of Aho. Angela's role as analogue of the Virgin is not to provide salvation, but to aid and comfort Abel as he seeks it. By re-creating for him the myth of their affair, she demonstrates for him the sustaining power of mythic perspective, the redeeming strength of sacramental vision.

In her wholeness of flesh and spirit, Angela can survive in her own world; but the tragedy of Abel, and, by extension, of the Indian in white America, is that he must choose between spiritual and physical poverty, between the dehumanizing and spiritually sterile white world and the material poverty of the pueblo. Any romantic heroism in Abel's final choice is undercut by the fact that the decision is practically made for him. He does not so much choose to go back as permit himself to be driven back by circumstances beyond his control. [The critic adds in a footnote: "If Momaday had simply had Abel pack his bag and go back, surely he would be open to charges of romanticizing his hero. From a sociological viewpoint, his return to Walatowa is a defeat."] Nevertheless, his return is the proper end; he could never find peace—or prosperity—in the land's end hell of Los Angeles.

Bleak and ambiguous though Abel's return and the final moments of the novel are, Momaday loads his concluding pages with suggestions of potential, perhaps even imminent triumph. Francisco and Angela are the two models for Abel's redemption; these two, the "longhairs" of the first part of the novel, point a path to him from their different perspectives. In a deathbed dream, Francisco recalls the sacramental killing of a bear in his youth, his initiation into manhood, and the rite is in a sense Abel's initiation, the sacrament of Abel's atonement. After this rite, Abel can truly be the bear and feel its medicinal power. As Francisco and the bear act out their drama, they demonstrate that death is natural and not to be feared; Francisco sees death in a sacred manner, and the bear feels no fear, not even any hurt as Francisco shoots it, only sadness. Abel's inability to see the rightness of the death of creatures is part of the wound in his soul that must be healed. In a white man's way, he sees the empirical reality of things—a shot goose, a huddled captive eagle—instead of their transcendent, sacramental forms. After his experiences in Los Angeles, his skirmish with death, Abel has lost his paralyzing horror of mortality and learned, as Francisco has always known, that evil is abroad in the night and must be faced.

not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and respect.

This vision of the dignity in dancing over the abyss, recalled by Francisco in his last delirium, is the motive for Abel's dawn run; this vision opens onto the path of salvation.

Angela adds one further undertone to these final moments of the novel, for she is in the background of February 28th, that last dawn, giving one last Catholic association to the theme of Abel's salvation. In 1952, the feastday of Angela of Foligno, the spiritual child of St. Francis of Assisi and the author of a book on the way of salvation, fell on February 28th, the day after Ash Wednesday. Described in Butler's Lives as one of the three great medieval mystics, her final vision closely parallels the last moments of the novel and sums up the theme of spiritual and temporal wellbeing: she saw an "abyss of light in which the truth of God was spread out like a road …" and the Lord said "Follow my footsteps from the cross on earth to this light." When Abel begins to run in the gathering light, pursuing the strong and healthy runners outdistancing him, running like Francisco after the shadows ahead, running beyond his pain, it is the morning after Ash Wednesday. When he joins the runners that morning, the day signifies not a resurrection, not a completed assimilation into his culture, but the beginning of forty days of penance. Abel's first act of penance, running in the rain, dusted with ashes, gives him back the words of Ben's song about the generative pollen, the rising sun; then gives him back his own language. The dawn is not a salvation but the beginning of salvation, the forty days in the wilderness from which Abel could return in triumph.

Joseph F. Trimmer (essay date Autumn 1975)

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SOURCE: "Native Americans and the American Mix: N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in The Indiana Social Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Autumn, 1975, pp. 75-91.

[Trimmer is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he provides an overview of the themes and structure of House Made of Dawn, and discusses whether the book meets the Pulitzer Prize's criterion of recognizing works which support "the wholesomeness of culture."]

At the beginning of this century when Joseph Pulitzer was composing the citations for the literary awards to be given in his name [in recognition "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood"], he could not have foreseen that in 1969 the fiction prize would be given to a Kiowa Indian, N. Scott Momaday, for a novel, House Made of Dawn, that would reveal why the wholesome American way could not assimilate and sustain everyone on the American continent. Even in our own time, the savants of contemporary literature did not foresee that this first novel by an unknown author would be singled out by the Pulitzer judges. It produced no extensive commentary when it was published—perhaps, as [William James Smith mused in a review of the work in Commonweal LXXXVIII (20 September 1968)] because "it seems slightly un-American to criticize an American Indian's novel"—and its subject matter and theme did not seem to conform to the prescription above. W. J. Stuckey has demonstrated [in The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look (1966)] that throughout the controversial history of the Pulitzer competition, the judges have usually adhered to the original prescription by selecting books that express a very traditional or conservative view of American culture. The major tenet of this view is that the ideal of rugged individualism, as it was formed on the frontier and codified in the American dream of success, remains the most reliable way of characterizing the mainstream of "American manners and manhood." Perhaps the Pulitzer judges saw the novel as dealing with a different form of the frontier experience or appreciated its affirmation of the conservative values of continuity and tradition. But House Made of Dawn would be better characterized as offering a view of American culture that is absolutely alien to the Pulitzer prescription. Indeed, because it reveals the deficiencies of American culture and affirms the values of Indian culture, the novel illustrates Leslie Fiedler's contention [in the 1968 The Return of the Vanishing American] that the Indian is the "utter stranger … [who] in his ultimate otherness has teased and baffled the imagination of generation after generation" of Americans.

To say that House Made of Dawn describes a different culture is not to say that it describes an indecipherable one. Early reviewers [such as Marshall Sprague in his "Anglos and Indians," New York Times Book Review (9 June 1968)] complained that the novel contained "plenty of haze" but suggested that perhaps this was inevitable in rendering "the mysteries of cultures different from our own." And those few critics [such as Carole Oleson in her "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review II (Spring 1973)] who have given the novel extended analysis acknowledge that much more explanation is needed "before outsiders can fully appreciate all the subtleties of House Made of Dawn." Because much of our contemporary fiction has been written by authors from America's various ethnic minorities, some spokesmen for these ethnic groups have challenged the right of disinterested critics to interpret "minority" literature. But the recognition of cultural differences should not prevent outsiders from attempting to discover the meanings amidst the apparent haze. To suggest that the novel's cultural differences make it incomprehensible to the non-Indian reader not only limits the universality of its theme, but also denies it its rightful place in the history of American literature, a history that has always been distinguished by the achievements of artists who have written out of their individual ethnic or regional experience rather than some vague notion of an homogenous American experience.

It is true that House Made of Dawn, like many modern American novels, presents some initial problems for the uninitiated. The characters seem flat and enigmatic because their motivation is not detailed with clinical precision; the plot seems, on occasion, fragmented and confusing because the transitions are not signaled by elaborate exposition; and the style seems unnecessarily compressed and cryptic because it is punctuated with a variety of oblique images. But given his subject, Momaday's use of these characteristic features of the modern novel seems appropriate: the world of the Indian in modern America appears to be a world with an eroding center, a world of fragments in danger of losing whatever cultural coherence it still retains; it is also a world dominated by the enormity of the physical landscape and the immediacy of sensory perceptions, a world diminished rather than explained by extensive use of "the word." Yet the world of the novel, like the world it describes, operates in accord with laws that confer perspective, design, and meaning. And like the novel's major character Abel, the reader will be able to find his place in this world once he learns to understand and accept these laws.

The Prologue that opens the novel depicts Abel, naked to the waist and smeared with ashes, running in the annual race for good hunting and harvest. As Carole Oleson points out, "all that Momaday will tell us of the human condition is summarized on that one page of prologue, but we must go on to the beginning of the story and curve around to the end, then read again the prologue in order to understand what he is saying here." The first paragraph describes the "old and everlasting" land: it is immense, multicolored, and seems to abide forever in the cycle of the seasons. The second paragraph describes Abel as he runs alone across this landscape, and his running, as we shall see in more detail later, functions as a multiple symbol: it is a ceremonial designation of the dawning of a new season, it marks the continuation of a cultural tradition into the next generation, and it embodies the essential wisdom Abel gains about his purpose and place in the world. Later in the novel, Abel will have a vision of men running: "they were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them." But here in the Prologue, the image of the running man carries no such significance. The reader is certainly not aware of the meanings that will eventually accrue to this simple act, and Abel does not see, at least not in a symbolic sense, the ultimate importance of his act, a fact suggested by his inability to see around the curve in the road and through the bank of rain. Once the reader reaches the end of the novel, however, he, like Abel, will understand the significance of the race, will understand that the end is in the beginning.

The novel proper is divided into four sections each marked by titles that seemingly refer to the major character developed in that section: "The Longhair" (Abel); "The Priest of the Sun" (Tosamah); "The Night Chanter" (Benally); and "The Dawn Runner" (Francisco). This identification is not nearly as neat as it would appear, however, because Abel is the center of consciousness for much of section 2, the major subject of section 3, and the major actor in section 4. Equally important stories, such as Angela's, Father Olguin's, Fray Nicolas's, Milly's, and old Carlozini's, are also mixed into sections 1, 2, and 3. More significantly, the identities of Abel and Francisco are intentionally blurred in sections 1 and 4 to reinforce the theme of generational continuity: Francisco, who begins, appears intermittently throughout, and ends section 1, is as surely a "longhair" as Abel, whose memories and actions dominate the section and who is labeled a longhair in section 3; similarly, although Francisco's deathbed memories dominate section 4, Abel begins the section and ends the novel when he becomes "the dawn runner" in the race that was once the major event in his grandfather's life.

The design and sequence of the four sections are also important to the themes of the novel. The first and last take place in the expansive sunlit landscape of Walatowa and the middle sections take place in the claustrophobic darkness of Los Angeles. The journey to and from Los Angeles, reinforced as it is by the onset of night and the return of day, suggests not only the cyclical pattern already mentioned but also the sense of dawning awareness experienced by both Abel and the reader. On first reading, section 1 appears almost incomprehensible. Abel's fragmented memories are elliptical and confusing, and the inscrutable tribal ceremonies in which he participates are only partially explained by the "outside" commentator, Father Olguin. When we move away from the sunlight of the reservation to the neon of the city in section 2, we feel momentarily enlightened by the elaborate analysis of the historical-cultural condition of the Indian offered by The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, Pastor of the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission and Priest of the Sun. And in section 3, we feel even more enlightened by Benally's sympathetic interpretation of why Abel, the unlucky longhair, failed to make it in Los Angeles. But this linear movement from mystery to meaning is misleading because neither Tosamah nor Benally really sees the significance of Abel's experience. In this context, it should be noted that Momaday uses a variety of sight images throughout the novel to symbolize degrees of knowledge and insight. Once we read section 4, we see, and perhaps in a different sense Abel also sees, that the seductive glitter of the white world has corrupted Tosamah's and Benally's vision. They may see Abel's return to the reservation as a return to darkness and defeat, but it is they who remain unenlightened (literally, in the dark) about the meaning of Abel's assumption of his foreordained place. Thus, as certain traditions are clarified and passed on to Abel in section 4, the reader is educated about the meaning of the mysterious events in section 1—again, the novel recycles to the beginning.

One final comment needs to be made about the overall design and structure of the novel before moving on to an analysis of its individual sections. Each of the four sections is subdivided into smaller chapters designated by dates: section 1 contains seven such chapters identified by seven dates between July 20 and August 2, 1945; section 2 contains two chapters, January 26 and 27, 1952; section 3, one, February 20, 1952; and section 4, two, February 27 and 28, 1952. Once we piece together the major events in Abel's life—his service in the army, his return to the reservation, his imprisonment for killing the Albino, and his abortive stay in Los Angeles—these dates present themselves as a meaningful seven-year sequence. They are as important to Abel's growth into manhood as the date of Francisco's victory in the dawn race is to his, a date that Francisco commemorates with a pencil drawing of a running man inscribed with the legend "1889." But like the headings for the major sections, the dates for these chapters only nominally control content. The chronological unity of each chapter is fractured by the personal recollections of characters and by the more extensive historical context provided Fray Nicolas's journals and the prehistoric accounts of the epic migration of the Kiowas out of the forested mountains, the tragic journey of the Bahkyush in search of a home, and the legendary descent of man from the caves down the ladder of the canyon to the plains. This constant mixing of contemporary experience with historical, and even mythical, experiences suggests that the novel renders time more as a repetitive cycle than a linear sequence. Certainly, the reader is more aware of time evolving within the cycle of a single season, from February (Prologue) to February (Section 4), than time advancing along a continuum from 1945 to 1952. In fact, time, like vision, is a major motif in the novel: Abel must see, must understand, must know what time it is, if he is to be able to find his place in the world. In section 4, Francisco explains the "long journey of the sun on the black mesa … the larger motion and meaning of the great organic calendar," and suddenly everything falls into place. We see that the dates of the chapters mark not only the major events in Abel's life but also the important ceremonial days of a culture. Like the sun's journey along the mesa, Abel's journey can thus be understood as a sequence within a cycle: the end of all his journeying is to return to the place where he began; once there, his race, like his grandfather's, will commemorate the dawn of a new beginning.

The seven chapters of "The Longhair" make it the largest and most complex of the novel's four sections. Repeating the pattern of the Prologue, the section opens with a description that organizes the landscape and evokes the orderly cycle of the seasons. We next see an old man, Francisco, stopping his wagon near the river to inspect a snare he has constructed to trap a bird for a prayer plume; he hopes to catch a bird with bright feathers, like a bluebird or tanager, but when to his disappointment he finds only a sparrow in his trap, he resets the snare and drives on. This small episode contains images and themes that reappear everywhere in the novel. The theme of disappointment is a constant, emerging with particular poignancy in the Los Angeles sections, but of more significance is the theme of entrapment. The trapping and killing of a variety of birds throughout the novel represents metaphorically the sense of imprisonment Abel feels whenever he is forced out of the world he knows and is enmeshed in the confusion of an alien culture: for example, at the end of section 1, he will be trapped in the embrace of the mysterious Albino, and in Los Angeles, he will be cornered in an alley by the equally ominous Martinez.

The first chapter concludes with two brief episodes. As Francisco continues his journey along the ancient road, he remembers the details of his victorious run in 1889. Invading this environment is the "strange sound" of the bus as it brings Abel home from the army. The bus stops, "the door swung open and Abel stepped heavily to the ground and reeled. He was drunk and he fell against his grandfather and did not know him." In contrast to his grandfather, who knows the place of the snare and whose running has earned him a place in the tribe, Abel is here portrayed as having lost his place. His experiences in the white world have disturbed his balance, blurred his vision, and infected him with "bad medicine."

It is to exorcise the influence of these experiences and to restore his sense of place that on the next day Abel climbs high above the valley to watch the coming of dawn. As he sits above this familiar landscape, Abel tries to "remember" the fragments of his shattered life. Each of the memories in this biographical sequence of seven touches on the themes of confusion, disappointment, and estrangement. The first three, which deal with Abel's early boyhood, underscore his sense of his difference from others, the foreboding mystery of the landscape, and the impermanence of life. We learn, for example, that his father, a Navajo who has deserted the family, was considered an "Isleta, an outsider … which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange." And we learn that Abel lives in dread of the moaning wind because "it would be for him the particular sound of anguish," a sound he connects with the unintelligible curses of the witch woman Nicolas, and the deaths of his mother and brother, Vidal. The fourth memory details Abel's initiation into manhood and acceptance by the community, but even though he kills a doe and returns with it for a triumphant ceremonial dance, he is disappointed in the evening's lovemaking with one of Medina's daughters. When he wants her a second time, she runs and then stands at some distance laughing at his drunken attempts to follow her.

The fifth memory, Abel's experiences with the Eagle Watchers Society, contains information vital to our understanding of Abel's final decision at the end of the novel. Outsiders often assume that Indian culture is a single entity, but this episode and others throughout the novel suggest that Indian culture, like American culture, is quite diverse. The twenty Bahkyush survivors of persecution and plague demonstrate not only the essential pluralism of Indian culture, but also those qualities that insure their survival within the dominant culture of their hospitable kinsmen. In fact, the Bahkyush did more than survive. By maintaining an allegiance to the traditions and ceremonies central to their faith, they became an important and even a superior society within their new tribe: "It was as if, conscious of having come close to extinction, they had got a keener sense of pride…. They had acquired a tragic sense, which gave to them as a race so much dignity and bearing." Abel's vision of the exalted sport of a pair of eagles in the sky above Valle Grande qualifies him to join these medicine men on their November hunt. But he feels "something like remorse or disappointment" when he has to kill rabbits for bait, and he experiences "shame and disgust" once he sees the noble eagle he has captured reduced to a "drab," "shapeless," "ungainly" bird in a sack. The eagle, unlike the society that bears its name, cannot survive with dignity in a different environment. Abel, who will eventually find himself caught in a similar situation in the alien environment of Los Angeles, responds sympathetically to the eagle's plight when he holds its "throat in the darkness and cut[s] off its breath."

Abel's final two memories concern his initial departure into the anomalous world of the white man. Both memories concern the nightmarish movements of a machine. The bus that takes him away to the army represents a new and strange form of imprisonment: he feels trapped behind its glass windows, estranged from his environment, as he experiences "the jar of the engine and the first hard motion of the wheels,… the lurch and loss of momentum." Abel's single recollection of the war focuses on a monstrous tank that appears dramatically in his vision as it climbs over a ridge and blots out the sun. As it passes him, "a wind arose and ran along the slope, scattering leaves."

This allusion to the wind reminds us that Abel's war experience is only one of many that have contributed to his alienation: he has never felt at home in the world. His actions throughout section 1 suggest, however, that his return to Walatowa signals the beginning of an attempt to find his place within the orderly traditions of his people. But before we examine his participation in these activities, it would be best to consider two other characters who suffer from the torments of alienation.

Like Abel, Angela St. John (the white woman who has come to the Benevides house, Los Ojos, searching for a vision of the good life) has lost her sense of place. Her pregnancy has caused her to feel vaguely dissatisfied and trapped. Her doctor-husband has sent her to Walatowa for the cure, but as she paces throughout the house it is clear that her daily baths and reading from the lives of the saints will not provide her with the perspective she desires. She senses in the Indian ceremonies and in Abel's expressionless face "some reality that she did not know, or even suspect…. Somewhere, if only she should see it, there was neither nothing or anything. And there, just there, that was the lost reality." She searches for this exotic other-reality in her relationship with Abel; she even compares their love-making to a totemic vision she has had about touching the wet, black snout of a bear. Her position between the white and Indian worlds is indicated by her names: Angela ties her to Los Angeles (the scene of Abel's abortive relocation) and the Catholic tradition but also to Maria de Los Angeles, Porcingula, and Our Lady of the Angels, interchangeable names for the patroness of the Bahkyush, the old witch-woman Francisco loves, and the totem at the center of the ceremony of the little house and the bull; similarly, St. John ties her to the Catholic tradition but also to Tosamah's sermon at the Pan-Indian Rescue Mission in section 2. By the conclusion of section 1, Angela has learned to see the value of these multiple traditions and no longer feels lost: she sees no need to confess to Father Olguin, and despite the onset of a horrifying storm, she does not feel threatened by the environment. In section 3, back in her place in the suburbs of Westwood, she will demonstrate that she has learned something from her experiences in Walatowa.

Like his predecessor Fray Nicolas, Father Olguin feels trapped in the confusing world of the Indian. Both men want to educate and sanctify those poor souls still bewitched by "dark custom," but neither has had much impact on the culture around him. Fray Nicolas's poor health and Father Olguin's limited vision suggest that their religious tradition can neither thrive nor bring enlightenment to the Indian community. Fray Nicolas's journal indicates that he was "not called" to attend the death of Tomacita Fraqua until it was time for burial, and in section 4 Father Olguin will not be called to attend the death of Francisco, one of Fray Nicolas's sacristans, until Abel has finished preparing his grandfather for burial. As Oleson points out, "the priests see themselves as models for the heathen, but the villagers relegate them only a part of their religious traditions, adding Catholic mass to their ceremonial life while subtracting nothing of their own."

Because Father Olguin is half-blind, it is ironic that he should explain the meaning of the first of the two major ceremonial occasions in section 1. According to his narrative, the rooster race commemorates Santiago's successes in the games at the royal city and his gifts of animals and harvest to the Pueblo people. By tradition, Santiago (St. James) is said to have brought Christianity to the primitive culture of Spain. In Father Olguin's version of the story, Santiago appears disguised as a peon in the American Southwest, is given hospitality by an old couple who sacrifice their only possession of value, a rooster, to provide him a meal, is victorious in the royal games and thus wins the king's daughter ("a girl with almond-shaped eyes and long black hair"), avoids the king's treachery when the rooster he had previously eaten is miraculously restored to warn him and to provide him with a sword to slay the king's guard, and insures the wealth of the Pueblos forever by sacrificing the rooster and his horse. The ceremony that Father Olguin and Angela observe contains many of the details from this legend, but their precise identification and meaning remain obscure, and the results of the ceremony seem enigmatic indeed. The rooster race is a game; Angela, whose "hair is long and very dark," can be seen as the prize for victory; and Abel, who has only recently exchanged his army uniform for his old clothes might conceivably be seen as enacting the role of one of the king's guard. The Albino, whose name, Juan Reyes, is perhaps meant as a symbolic allusion to John, brother of James, triumphs at the game and holds the rooster high above his head as he reins his horse to a stop in front of Angela. Abel, astride "his grandfather's roan black horse," is then singled out, trapped, and beaten with the rooster. The Albino, who is larger and more powerful than the other contestants and whose poor eyes are covered by black glasses shaped like pennies, is clearly a figure of mystery. But unlike the legendary Santiago, the Albino's victory does not seem to portend success for the Indian culture. His brutality and destructiveness seem impulsive, somehow not part of the normal ceremony: "there was something out of place, some flaw in proportion or design, some unnatural thing." The white man plays the game but does so with a malice that seems to reverse rather than exemplify the theme of the Santiago legend. In fact, his unnatural whiteness and insatiable cruelty seem to tie him symbolically to the white culture that brutalized and destroyed the wealth of the Indian culture. Whatever the Albino's exact identity, Francisco and Abel seem justified in identifying him as an alien and evil force.

The second major ceremony contains a similar cast of symbolic characters and is enacted to celebrate the "return of weather, of trade and reunion," of wealth to the town. At the center of the ritual is Porcingula, Our Lady of Angels, who serves as both the shrine at the center of the Catholic Mass and the patroness of the Bahkyush. The two other characters in this ritual, the bull and the little horse, are also part of the tradition of the Bahkyush. The little horse, with its spotted hide, "black hat and black mask," is reminiscent of the little horse that Abel rode in the rooster race, and the bull, with its black costume "painted with numerous white rings" and its eyes represented with black metal buttons, evokes the image of the Albino, particularly since the bull also has the "look of evil." But this ceremony reverses the results of the first: the bull is made an object of ridicule and revelry as the children, dressed as black-faced clowns, chase it through the streets and the little horse not only leads the lovely Lady through the streets but also is given prayers, plumes, pollen, and meal by the medicine men.

For the outsider, the ultimate meaning of each detail in these ceremonies remains inscrutable. And significantly, the white outsider (Father Olguin) who attempted to explain the first ceremony in which the Albino is triumphant is excluded from this second ceremony when he is trapped in his car and, like the bull, ridiculed by the children. But for Francisco, this montage of rituals forms a unified tradition that gives design and meaning to existence. Confronting and exorcising evil as well as bestowing wealth are the inescapable conditions of the yearly cycle: he has sensed the presence of an evil force (the Albino) amidst the rows of corn awaiting harvest and he has even played the bull several times in the annual harvest ceremony. But he acknowledges that it is difficult to understand these things "now that the men of the town had relaxed their hold upon the ancient ways, had grown soft and dubious." Abel too recognizes the deeper significance of these ceremonies. When, after a long day of harvest celebration, he is trapped by the embrace of the Albino, he kills him. Later, at his trial, he will say that he killed an "evil spirit": "He had killed the white man. It was not a complicated thing after all, it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world…. A man kills such an enemy if he can."

The white judge is not satisfied with this explanation, however, and so condemns Abel to jail for committing "a brutal and premeditated act." Thus, while Abel has symbolically slain Cain, Abel remains Cain's victim. His experiences in the white man's jail, like his experiences in the white man's army, produce bewilderment. When he serves his seven-year term and is relocated in Los Angeles, he can recall from his prison experience only the vague shape of the walls of his cell. Los Angeles proves even more disorienting. As Oleson points out, Abel resembles the small silversided fish he sees spawning on the California beach: "they hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon. They are among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth." Like the fish who once thrived in the sea, Abel is floundering on the beach: "He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." This is the situation for all the Indians who gather at the bar called The Silver Dollar or who attend the peyote ceremonies at the Pan-Indian Rescue Mission. But like Father Olguin, who continues to celebrate the Mass in the primitive culture of Walatowa, these Indians continue to try to find a place in urban America.

"The Priest of the Sun," section 2, is centered in Abel's consciousness as he lies drunk and beaten on a California beach. The memories that form in his mind are more disjointed and garbled than the more orderly sequence he recalled in section 1, but his loss of intelligibility is indicative of both his immediate situation and his experiences ever since he came to Los Angeles. Those experiences are given an historical context by The Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, whose sermon on "The Gospel According to John" appears as a coherent unit amidst Abel's incoherent reveries. He begins by fashioning a vision of creation for his audience to illustrate that "in the beginning was the world." But then, like the John in his text, John Tosamah's vision fails him and he must go on to explain what the Truth meant: "He tried to make it bigger and better than it was, but instead he demeaned and encumbered it." According to Tosamah

… old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all this he subtracts the Truth. And, brothers and sisters, you have come here to live in the white man's world. Now the white man deals in words, and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his own ground, you are as children, mere babes in the woods.

In the long history of the Indian's relationship to white America, he has often been betrayed and deceived by the word. And certainly Abel feels, at his trial, in prison, and in Los Angeles that the white man's words—especially as they are characterized by the endless questionnaires he is given by prison officials and social workers—have no direct relationship to his life. Indeed, the white man has forgotten that words, in Emerson's terminology, are signs of natural facts: the white man's words no longer connect with the physical world. And because his words abstract, dilute, and attenuate experience, the white man has become sated and insensitive to the world around him. His fascination for the prolification of paper and the enclosures of cement and steel protects him from confronting either himself or nature.

Certainly this alienation from nature helps explain the history of Milly, the white social worker Abel lives with in Los Angeles. Like Abel, Milly is a refugee in Los Angeles. Her father was a farmer, but unlike Francisco, who reveres the land he cultivates even though it is often cracked and dry, "Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own personal and deadly enemy." His counsel to his daughter is to leave the place, but her arrival in the city of lights brings only tragedy and death: her husband deserts her and her child dies of a burning fever. Like Angela before her, Milly gives herself to Abel out of a vague sense of her own incompleteness. She may provide for Abel by bringing him food and finding him jobs, but it is Abel who sustains Milly by providing her with a symbolic link to the land she has left and lost.

In a slightly different sense, Tosamah is also a refugee. He may possess all the sophistication of white culture, but in his second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," he acknowledges that he too has lost something. It is because he wishes to understand his grandmother's culture that he reenacts the epic journey of the Kiowa tribe. Originally, the tribe lived in the high wall of woods in the mountains, but "the Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness." They migrated to the open plains where they confronted the immensity of the landscape and the constant illumination of the sun. It was only natural that the sun became their god, but the tribe lost contact with their god when the white man killed the buffalo and forbade the sun dance, "the essential act of their faith." Thus, unlike the Bahkyush, the Kiowas were denied their sense of cultural identity. Without such an identity, Tosamah finds it difficult to understand his place in the world. Of course, Tosamah continues to serve as a "priest of the sun," but he enacts this role with a mixture of "conviction, caricature, callousness." The sun he worships is merely a red and yellow decorative symbol in the dark basement of a Los Angeles tenement. Symbolically, he is as bent and blind within the walls of cement as his ancestors were in the wilderness; he sees the dawn only in the fire of the peyote ceremony, a ceremony that is surely a parody of the way "the ol' people … tol' us to do it" and about as meaningful in Los Angeles as the Mass is in Walatowa. In fact, the names of John Big Bluff Tosamah and his disciple Cristabal Cruz suggest that both men may be more interested in conning than serving the Indian community.

Milly's memory of the world her father never loved has turned to nostalgia and Tosamah's understanding of the world his grandmother revered has turned to cynicism, but Abel's experiences in Los Angeles reaffirm his commitment to the old way. He is ridiculed by the urbanized Indians at The Silver Dollar for being a "longhair"; he is dismissed from his job because he fails to adapt to the dulling regimen of time clocks and to maintain the mindless, machine-like perfection required of workers on the line; and he is humiliated and beaten by the powerful Martinez, a representative of the white man's law whom the Indians correctly identify as a culebra. Of course, this last experience is not dissimilar to the humiliating beating Abel received from the malevolent Albino, but in Walatowa the culture provided a way to understand and respond to the evil in the world. As Abel lies beaten on the beach, he sees through his swollen eyes a vision of "the old men in white leggings running after evil in the night…. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world." It is the sense of coherence and continuity communicated by this vision that convinces Abel to return to his place in the old culture, to give up the rat race and become a dawn runner.

Benally, Abel's healer and ally, narrates the third section of the novel, "The Night Chanter." The occasion is Abel's departure for the reservation, and as he returns from the train station through the misting rain and blurry neon to his dark apartment, Benally is disturbed by what he takes to be his friend's failure: "He was unlucky…. He was a longhair, like Tosamah said. You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all." Unlike the recalcitrant longhair, Benally is able to change, mainly because he recognizes that "there's nothing else. And you want to do it, because you see how good it is. It's better than anything you've ever had; it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast." But as he sits alone in his apartment watching a befuddled pigeon attempt to find its way amidst the maze of dark buildings, it is clear that Benally too has lost his way. He spends his days working on the line and his evenings searching for some momentary human contact. His plight is not unlike that of his neighbor old Carlozini, who shuts herself up in her apartment and shuts her pet guinea pig Vincenzo up in a box: they will all die trapped and alone. Thus, despite his insistence that life can be good in the land of plenty, Benally unknowingly reveals the truth of Tosamah's cynical carping about "Relocation and Welfare and Termination."

Although Benally dismisses the old way—"there's nothing there, you know, just the land, and the land is empty and dead"—he spends a good deal of time thinking about the way it was. His three chants, to the dawn, to his horse, and to beauty, all end with a reckoning of perspective—before, behind, below, above, all around—that suggests the way his culture once made him feel "right there in the center of everything." And his memories of his Navajo grandfather, the cycle of the seasons, and the changeless land suggest that Benally may still wish to be a longhair. In fact, as he recalls riding across the land at dawn on a black horse to dance with the girl named Pony at Cornfields, Benally's memories seem to fuse with Abel's memories of Medina's daughter in section 1. But Benally is finally different from Abel: he has been away to school and he has learned to trade successfully with the white man. He went to the dance at Cornfield once, but he never sees the girl named Pony again. Like the other Los Angeles refugees, he has become trapped on the American treadmill.

At the end of Benally's narrative he tells us that Angela visited Abel when he was in the hospital. Before Abel killed the Albino, "she was going to help him get a job and go away from the reservation." At the hospital, Angela tells Abel that she has thought about him a great deal and that she has passed on to her son "a story about a young Indian brave. He was born of a bear and a maiden … and he was noble and wise. He had many adventures, and he became a great leader and saved his people … and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it." This allusion to the bear and the maiden returns us to Angela's totemic vision in section 1 and suggests that Angela has grasped some intimation of that other-reality. For rather than assisting Abel to stay away from the reservation, her story about the young Indian brave confirms his decision to return to his people. Benally responds to Angela's story by saying that it reminds him of a story his grandfather passed on to him about the bear and the snake, the theme of which is the recurrent nature of experience: the bear fathers a child who in turn gives birth to two children, one of whom was carried away by an owl but then escaped to the east where he became a medicine man and fathered an illegitimate child who was found by the bear. This story serves as an appropriate conclusion to Abel's relocation experience because it reinforces the pattern of Abel's return east, to the house of dawn, to the scene of his new beginning.

The scene for much of section 4, "The Dawn Runner," is Francisco's hut. Although the landscape looks bleak and gray, winter is coming to an end. But so is Francisco. Abel sits entrapped in the dark of his grandfather's house for six days while Francisco dies. As he did at the deaths of his mother and brother, Abel feels a sense of despair, a sense of betrayal and abandonment. But Francisco's deathbed memories suggest the continuity rather than the end of a tradition. His memories parallel Abel's memories in section 1, thus suggesting not only the eternal repetition of experience, but also the appropriateness of Abel as an heir to his grandfather's place within the culture. Significantly, Francisco's first memory concerns his attempt to explain the meaning of the "great organic calendar" to his grandsons. Each time the sun dawns along the ridge of the black mesa, it marks the beginning of an important day in the life of their culture: "They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time." Because the events Francisco uses to illustrate the working of this calendar are the major ceremonial occasions in the novel, the reader now understands the schedule of the mysterious rituals in section 1; more importantly, he understands why the novel's title, House Made of Dawn, directs and controls the life of the novel.

Francisco's remaining memories concern his own participation in the cycle of events marked by the "house of dawn." He remembers his solitary hunt for the bear along the black mesa, the hunt that marked his initiation into manhood. He first visits the caves of his ancestors where, among the things of the dead, he sees a "great swooping bird" kill a small rodent. Then he tracks the bear along the mesa and finally kills it, marking the bear's eyes with yellow streaks of pollen, disemboweling the bear, and eating quickly of the bear's liver. When he returns to the village with the bear, "the men came out to meet him…. The men and women were jubilant and all around, and he rode stone-faced in their midst, looking straight ahead." In contrast with this triumphant victory, Francisco remembers his love relationship with Porcingula which, like Abel's love relationship with Angela, produces nothing. But Francisco's dead child is symbolically reborn in Abel who will continue the tradition, just as Francisco remembers that he continued the tradition when the old man passed the drum to him—"and nothing was lost, nothing." Francisco's last memory concerns his discovery that he can no longer go on in the dawn race; this memory comes before the seventh dawn of his dying and marks his death. But Abel emerges on the seventh dawn, smeared with symbolic ashes, to assume his grandfather's place. He falls once, but he gets up and runs on. His running marks the death of winter and his grandfather and the return of life to the land, the day, and his soul: the end is in the beginning.

Just as section 4 returns us to the beginning of the novel, so this conclusion will consider again some of the issues raised at the beginning of this essay. Clearly, the judges were in error if they thought House Made of Dawn extended the long tradition of Pulitzer novels which "presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life." In fact, the novel warns native Americans that they may lose more than they gain if they assimilate into the American mix. That culture—represented in the novel by the army, the legal system, the social agency, and the factory—is revealed as distempered, impersonal, moribund, productive of frantic motion and useless objects, but no true life. To believe that this manic activity is not only wholesome, but also productive of "the highest standard of American manners and manhood" is to be willfully deceived by the most pernicious of American fantasies. Tosamah and Benally may continue to pursue this deadly dream, but Abel chooses the Indian culture because its rituals, traditions, and ways of perceiving offer a more wholesome and sustaining vision of manners and manhood. Yet the novel does not prophesy that Abel will actually save his people from cultural disintegration or that his people will save America from its own malignancies. Momaday is realistic enough to agree with Tosamah about the outcome of "What's His Name v. United States." Besides, Momaday is a novelist, not a social leader. He wants to evoke, to make us see, as he says in The Way to Rainy Mountain, "a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures."

Because Momaday's novel makes us see, it confirms, in a rather ironic way, the appropriateness of its selection for the Pulitzer. Such a selection may indicate that we are neither too indifferent to the complexities of Indian culture nor too presumptuous about the superiority of American culture. Certainly, from one perspective, the wholesomeness of American culture depends on its ability to tolerate and learn from those diverse groups in its midst that offer an absolutely alien version of the American experience. Momaday has said that "the Indian is a man from whom a great deal can be learned, for the Indian has always known who and what he is; he has a great capacity for wonder, delight, belief and for communion with the natural world contradictory to the destruction rampant in 'civilization'." Perhaps by the end of House Made of Dawn the reader, like Father Olguin, has glimpsed some of what the Indian has to teach:

Father Olguin shivered with cold and peered out into the darkness. "I can understand," he said. "I understand, do you hear?" And he began to shout "I understand! Oh God! I understand—I understand!"

Baine Kerr (essay date Spring 1978)

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SOURCE: "The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-Making Ethic," in Southwest Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 172-79.

[In the following essay, Kerr examines Momaday's ability to render Native American culture and beliefs within the Western literary construct of the novel.]

Recently I sat through a noisy, irreconcilable argument between two Anglos about Indians. An Irish lawyer for the Navajos from Chinle, Arizona, accused an anthropologist friend of blind sacrilege in the Southwest. The anthropologist, who was not present, was defended as an ally of Indians and preserver of culture. The specific issue concerned the unearthing of Anasazi pueblos and especially gravesites in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, and the withering fear of the Navajo crews once within the Old Ones' middens. The most unholy of trespasses, the lawyer called it, and one likely to bring charges that the crew were brujos. Help the Indians, he said, but don't transgress the sacred charnel.

The larger issue, of course, is the dilemma not only of anthropologists but of any investigator, interpreter, even traveler, and perhaps especially writer, dealing with another people. To what degree is it possible to shed one's civilization and descend (to use William Carlos Williams's phrase, applied to Sam Houston) into a different culture? To what degree is it possible to bring forth honestly and intact the findings of the descent? Should the transcultural leap be attempted at all? Is it sacrilege, another form of feckless Anglo plunder? Can the imagination ever really presume to transcend cultural borders?

Near the end of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn the old man, Francisco, in the fever of dying, recalls a solitary bear hunt from his youth. A preliminary and, it seems, self-imposed ritual to the hunt was a visit to a cave of the Old Ones. He climbed the face of a cliff where the "ancient handholds were worn away to shadows … pressing with no force at all his whole mind and weight upon the sheer ascent." He entered a cave, stood among mounded dead embers, earthen bowls, a black metate, charred corn cobs. An eagle rushed across the mouth of the cave, struck a rodent, and rose, and Francisco, we assume, went on. The bear hunt which follows is a central tale in the novel, in the same way that Francisco, the protagonist's grandfather, is a central cohering character. The hunt was an occasion of great, self-conscious manliness, carried off through conscientious application of racial skills and virtues, and accorded, in the pueblo, well-earned esteem. But most interesting, I think, is the quiet trespass in the Anasazi cave—a terrifying sin of commission, according to the lawyer. A sacrilege, and therefore the height of bravery.

Francisco works as a structuring principle in House Made of Dawn. His lime-twig trap, his hope to snare the sacred, frames the eighty pages and thirteen days of Part One. His inexpressible grief sets the tone that broods behind every page. Until the last part, Francisco is inarticulate and peripheral, a still point against whom the story's violence brushes and whom it then leaves alone. But in this book peripheries are profound, delineating limbuses. Francisco—heroic, crippled, resonant with the old ways, impotent in the new—acts as a lodestone to the novel's conflicting energies. His incantatory dying delirium in Spanish fixes Momaday's symbolic compass: Porcingula, the white devil, the black runners. The commotions of the narrative gather and cool around the old man, and around his dying the book shapes its proportions. Francisco becomes at the end the lens for the single sharp image the novel has been struggling to focus on: Abel's convalescent, redemptive participation in the running. The direction, the structure of House Made of Dawn is toward proportion, toward a falling into place. The novel resolves into Francisco's recollections and is driven by tensions revealed to be his: sacrilege and sacredness, fear and courage.

It is a brave book. Momaday's ambition is enormous and untried; he is attempting to transliterate Indian culture, myth, and sensibility into an alien art form, without loss. He may in fact be seeking to make the modern Anglo novel a vehicle for a sacred text.

In the effort massive obstacles are met by author and reader, and one should perhaps catalog Momaday's literary offenses. Style must be attended to, as it demands attention. The first paragraph—six quite short sentences—is a composite of quiet, weak constructions: only one active verb (grazed), eight uses of the verb to be (primarily in the verbals there was or it was), and repeated nine times. Repetition, polysyndeton, and there as subject continue to deaden the narrative's force well into the book. Happily, the style crisps a good deal after the first twenty-eight pages, when the story finally begins. But what are we to do with, for example, "There is a town and there are ruins of other towns," or "The rooms were small and bare, and the walls were bare and clean and white"? The reader (this reader, at any rate) is tempted to shelve the book instantly; it seems spackled with pretentious, demipoetic cheap shots intended to solemnify, without justification, simple declarative statements.

The language in the first part vacillates between lugubrious flatness of this sort and fascinating thought, as in "the eagle ranges far and wide over the land, farther than any other creature, and all things there are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird," or precision of imagery:

She could see only the flashes of lightning and the awful grey slant of the flood, pale and impenetrable, splintering upon itself and cleaving her vision like pain. The first fast wave of the storm passed with scarcely any abatement of sound; the troughs at the eaves filled and flowed, and the thick ropes of water hung down among the hollyhocks and mint and ate away at the earth at their roots; the glaze of rainwater rose up among the clean white stones and ran in panels on the road; and across the road the rumble and rush of the river.

But, whether fascinating or irritating, the language, especially in Part One, is disconcerting. We have all been told that when language distracts from character or story or sense the author is sliding into unforgivable error. It is the sin of poets writing fiction, and unacceptable in a conventional novel.

Even more blameworthy, or brave, is Momaday's mutilation of narrative. The story does not begin until page 29, when Abel meets Angela Grace St. John (a rather heavy-handedly significant series of names). No writer, we feel, can expect his audience to dally undirected that long. Moreover, once the story begins, it diffuses, delays, fades in and out. We muddle back and forth from ceremony, through seemingly arbitrarily introduced material such as an antique diary; to beautifully evoked place information and history; to ceremony again; through powerful but incompletely explained passion in the priest and white Angela; to Abel's surreal and inscrutable murder of the albino; then back to the old man, his lime-twig, and his inchoate loneliness. And that is Part One—a staggeringly difficult interrupted narrative.

But the fact is that it works. Something is going on here. Momaday, one realizes, is adhering to the perception of one of his characters, Father Olguin, of "an instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." Halfway through the novel one forgets aggravations and begins to hope that he can pull it off.

The plot of House Made of Dawn actually seems propelled by withheld information, that besetting literary error. We know virtually nothing of Abel's brother Vidal until a flashback on page 109, and never learn about his death, clearly a crucial tragedy for the family. The critical character of Francisco builds only in slow accretions, not complete until a few pages before the end when we discover that he was "sired by the old consumptive priest." That bit of suppressed information cannot be excused. We cannot be expected to recognize the meaning of the old priest's diary, 138 pages back, only then. And the revelation of Francisco's cross-cultural mestizo blood, his sacrilegious parturition, is too vital to have been procrastinated.

But Momaday very effectively adumbrates the identity of Porcingula. She is characterized partially, vaguely, and as different figures in different places; she emerges as a fleshed-out, dramatic character only at the end—here again providing a gloss to the old priest's diary. But the author is not confused or contemptuously confusing us with this masquerade. Porcingula is many things: the totem of the Bahkyush; a Christian saint (Maria de los Angeles); a whore; Francisco's lover; and, in remote yet richly possible connections, Pony, Angela, and most importantly Tai-me, Momaday's heartfelt creation deity. Porcingula is a spirit drifting through the book, and, by its end, credible in any guise. The same holds for the novel's figures of evil. Not conventional three dimensional villains, they remain shadowy and unknown—as evil is to Indians—and should not be expounded. We don't need to know who the albino was or what became of Martinez the culebra, the bad cop. In this sense of the art's springing from within Indian experience, the distractions of language are likewise appropriate. Image can be more important than story or sense because in Momaday's, the Pueblos', the Kiowas' social reality, image is.

But Momaday has to give a little. Part One—the story of Abel's return from the war, his brief affair with Angela St. John, his weird murder of the ophidian albino—might stand alone as a portrait of reservation life and anxiety, but as narrative it remains a farrago riddled with half-developed possibilities. Consequently the book is structured in form, not function, as is Nabokov's Pale Fire: introductory poetics followed by commentary. Parts Two, Three, and Four are each dominated by a new voice supplanting Momaday's coy omniscience in Part One, supplying fact and context which the novel could not have done without.

The first of these voices is "Big Bluff" Tosamah, the prolix, brilliant "Priest of the Sun." Tosamah, in his two magnificent "sermons," is really an incarnation of the author, Momaday's mouthpiece, giving us what we've been denied: interpretation of Indian consciousness, expatiation on themes. In the first sermon, "The Gospel According to St. John," Tosamah perceives the Book of John as an over-wrought creation myth, applies the lightning bolt concept of the Word to the Kiowa myth of Tai-me, and apotheosizes the Indian gift of the human need for a felt awe of creation: "There was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened. At the distance of a star something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break up the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it."

At the same time the sermon precisely elucidates aspects of Part One. St. John refers specifically back to Angela St. John, her half-understood awareness of the need "To see nothing, slowly and by degrees." Angela, like John, did glimpse it, "the last reality," but, we may assume, also like John "had to account for it … not in terms of his imagination but only in terms of his prejudice." Tosamah is providing an exegesis of Part One, formulating what Angela's and Anglos' limitations are, what Abel and Indians are losing, and buttressing Momaday's themes of the importance of myth ("the oldest and best idea man has of himself") and mystical vision.

The point is that Momaday had to root his story in sense and significance here, had to help us mystified Anglos out. Tosamah is an intriguing, well-crafted interlocutor, but also a slightly caricatured self-portrait—like Momaday a Kiowa, a man of words, an interpreter of Indian sensibility. "He doesn't understand," we are informed later through Ben Benally, "he's educated." It is as if, by speaking through the voluble megaphone of Tosamah, Momaday is apologizing for having to stoop to words to convey the obvious. To be sure, it is an oblique approach to a necessary literary office—the clear explication of mythic and intellectual context—but right on the mark.

Tosamah's next sermon leaves the web of the novel entirely and expands a personal journey into an elegiac history of the Kiowa. This is so much the author speaking, and speaking, he must have felt, correctly, so well, that Momaday lifted this chapter straight (except for a few inexplicable alterations and deletions) into his next book, titled, as is the sermon, The Way to Rainy Mountain. This monumental instance of self-plagiarism illustrates, I suppose, that Momaday fears no literary taboo. Unfortunately, The Way to Rainy Mountain does not much profit from a reworking and distension of Tosamah's sermon and Tai-me story.

The book recounts the Kiowa's pilgrimage in a conversation of sorts between three distinct voices seriatim: a teller of legends, a historian/anthropologist, and the first-person author connecting memory to myth. Each of the three interpreters is a representative facet of Momaday's imagination, and their counterpoint is a self-conscious exercise in salvaging both the letter and spirit of the Kiowa's epic quest. Momaday is indulging his ethic of myth-making, is gunning for the sacred text. He was more on target in House Made of Dawn.

Both books develop from within the culture, but the perspective of The Way to Rainy Mountain is wholly locked inside Indian sensibility, focusing on itself. The novelist's hand is not in evidence contriving character or tale. It appears that the more successful House Made of Dawn owes its strength partly to the distancing and emotional content that a novel can bear. Momaday's ambition—the transfiguration of culture through art—seems to require a fictional imagination.

Ben Benally, the interpretative voice following Tosamah in House Made of Dawn, was, like Tosamah, pressed again into service in The Way to Rainy Mountain, though not identified by name. Here Benally's conversational argot records antique times and tales: "You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was." In House Made of Dawn, however, Benally complements Tosamah's exposition of history, myth, and theme by setting forth contemporary Indian ways. For example, speaking directly to the reader, he explains, "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this [Los Angeles]." Once more Momaday is responding to the need to inform, to keep us with him, and the response is excellent. Benally's sane, quiet voice applies a leavening perspective to the book's turbid events. With him Momaday has begun fashioning the proportions vented in the voice of the third and last interpreter to speak—Francisco.

Abel's grandfather acts as the alembic that transmutes the novel's confusions; his retrospection marks off the book's boundaries, points of reference, and focal themes: the great organic calendar of the black mesa—the house of the sun (which locates the title)—as a central Rosetta stone integrating the ceremonies rendered in Part One, and the source place by which Abel and Vidal could "reckon where they were, where all things were, in time." The summoning of the highest of Indian graces and abilities in Francisco's initiatory bear hunt. His passion for the wild witch spirit Porcingula; his fear and loss with their still-born child. His participation in ritual, "his perfect act" in drumming for the dancers, which determined his stature and enabled him to heal. Then, his running "beyond pain" in the race of the dead.

The dawn runners, the runners after evil, compose the central, framing image of the novel: "They were whole and indispensible in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe." Similarly, the method of the last part, "The Dawn Runner," is to arrange perspective, proportion, design in the novel. Francisco's voice, which had "failed each day only to rise up again in the dawn," parallels the running. His memories, "whole and clear and growing like the dawn," infuse the book with sense and order. And his death urges Abel's stumbling regeneration through joining the race at dawn.

In Los Angeles Benally and Abel dreamt of a "plan" to go home together and ride out to the hills alone: "We were going to get drunk for the last time, and we were going to sing the old songs." Their plan, in other words, was to hold a valedictory for their heritage. But Momaday eschews this highly exploitable scene and leaves us with Abel running, an image that argues perfectly against a valediction for the Indians. "All of his [Abel's] being was concentrated in the sheer motion of running on, and he was past caring about the pain … he could see at last without having to think." In this ability is Abel's survival and that of his people.

The novel concerns survival, not salvation, enduring rather than Faulkner's sense of prevailing. The dawn runners physically manifest the Indian strength—they abide, "and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long out-waiting." And Momaday is proposing not only a qualified hope for cultural continuity, but a holy endurance. The running is a sacred rite and an act of courage, thus a warding off of fear and evil, the specters (consolidated in such demons as Martinez and wine) that gnaw at Indian probity throughout the book. The race at dawn is additionally a sacrament of creation. As such it outlines the novel's purpose and achievement.

House Made of Dawn. Its subject is creation myth, the antithesis of Benally's "plan." The book's metaphysics build from a sequence of creation schemata: the diaspora of the Bahkyush, the feast of Santiago, St. John's Word, Tai-me, Benally's songs, his grandfather's story of the Bear Maiden. The book is a creation myth—rife with fabulous imagery, ending with Abel's rebirth in the old ways at the old man's death—but an ironic one, suffused with violence and telling a story of culture loss. Sacrilege repeatedly undercuts sacredness. Father Olguin constantly faces the corruption of his faith, from Angela's mockery, from the perverse vision of a Pueblo Christ child. The vitality of ceremony is juxtaposed to the helplessness of drunks. The peyote service is sullied, almost bathetic. But sacrilege impels sacredness here, as fear does courage, and loss survival. The series of myths, each variously imperfect, each with common corruptions and shared strengths, overlap, blend, and fuse as this novel.

The word Zei-dl-bei or "frightful," Momaday tells us in The Way to Rainy Mountain, was his grandmother's response to evil. "It was not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder." Language, then, can be a fundamental cultural defense. And as the expression of the imagination, language defines culture. Culture, Momaday writes, "has old and essential being in language." A people come of age by "daring to imagine who they are." Such mythifying, "peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination," is clearly Momaday's literary ethic and the one process on which he places a sort of moral value. The imagination that transfigures reality is the source of cultural identity.

Momaday has ur-Anglo Angela St. John compose a creation myth honoring Abel, her Indian lover. It is her son's favorite story—a young Indian brave, noble and wise, born of a bear and a maiden. Her tale astounds Ben Benally: Angela has become a myth-maker, has transcended cultural boundaries with her imagination, has preserved what was holy in Abel. Likewise Momaday is a preserver of holiness in House Made of Dawn. He has transported his heritage across the border; in a narrative and style true to their own laws, he has mythified Indian consciousness into a modern novel.

Marilyn Nelson Waniek (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Minority Voices, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1980, pp. 23-8.

[Waniek is an American poet, translator, and essayist. In the following essay, she analyzes the role of language as a source of power in House Made of Dawn.]

In 1969, one year after the publication of his novel House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday, in an article entitled "The Story of the Arrowmaker," interpreted the Kiowa legend of the arrowmaker as a story essentially about the power of language. For the arrowmaker, says Momaday, "language is the repository of his whole knowledge and experience, and it represents the only chance he has for survival." The legend depicts "the man made of words." Other writers have pointed out the native American's belief in the power of language; Margot Astrov, in her introduction to American Indian Prose and Poetry, writes, "The word, indeed, is power. It is life, substance, reality. The word lived before earth, sun, or moon came into existence." In their anthology [entitled Literature of the American Indian], Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek say this about the power:

Whether it existed before Wah'kon-tah, simultaneously, or shortly after, the word is vital to the Great Mystery, being perhaps the greatest mystery, for it has power to cause medicine to work, to lure game into range, to cause plants to grow, to allow man to address, be heard by, and join with the Great Mystery. As such, language itself is sacred …

The belief in such powers of language is not peculiar to the American Indian; Ernst Cassirer and Bronislaw Malinowski, among others, discuss the power of the word in various societies. Cassirer, writing of the bond between the linguistic consciousness and the mythical-religious consciousness [in his Language and Myth] tells us that, "the Word, in fact, becomes a sort of primary force, in which all being and doing originate. In all mythical cosmogonies, as far back as they can be traced, this supreme position of the Word is found." [In an essay appearing in Max Black's 1962 The Importance of Language] Malinowski links this supreme position of the word to the development of language in every individual. He writes, "we realize that all language in its earliest function within the context of infantile helplessness is protomagical and pragmatic." The writings of N. Scott Momaday, himself a Kiowa, show him to be aware of the creative and healing power of the word in this broad understanding, and the power of language is an important theme in House Made of Dawn.

The prologue of the novel begins where the hero ends, running in the race of the black men at dawn. Later in the novel we learn the significance of this race; it is the race

of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

The race, then, is man's confrontation with his universe; his division of the world into good and evil; his creation of meaning. The prologue begins with a prayer, the Navajo Night Chant—or more properly a song from the Night Chant—through which the singer restores order in the world through his reverence for the words of the song and the influence of his voice. The prologue demonstrates the dual function of language to create and to heal, and represents in capsule form the primary concerns of the novel.

Abel is drunk when we first meet him, and the flashbacks of the second chapter serve to explain that his drunkenness is the result of his long isolation, his dislocation, the anguish of his life. Through his sight and capture of an eagle he is linked to the Eagle Watchers Society, the principal ceremonial organization of the Bahkyush, a small group of survivors of an otherwise extinct people, who "in their uttermost peril long ago … had been fashioned into seers and soothsayers." Yet Abel has not been fashioned into a seer and soothsayer, one who has "consummate being in language." He thinks, one week after his return to Los Ojos from the Army, that his return has been a failure.

He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past and the words had taken hold of the moment and made it eternal. Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language—even the commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of custom still—but inarticulate.

This early in the novel, Abel can use the creative and healing power of his own language neither to communicate with his grandfather nor to pray: "… he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreon made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together." This early inarticulateness seems to be the result of Abel's experience in the war. Yet, when after the Festival of Santiago he is able to use the power of the word to identify the evil of the albino, Abel faces the white man's understanding of the word and loses the power. During the trial Father Olguin tries to explain Abel's motivation to the court: "I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us." The ensuing discussion centers on the definition of Abel's act: "Homicide is a legal term … Murder is a moral term. Death is a universal human term." Abel thinks, "Word by word by word these men are disposing of him in language, their language…." Thus caught between two conflicting uses of the power of language to define his act, Abel again becomes inarticulate. He is sent to prison, paroled, and finally he rediscovers the power at the end of the novel.

The five other major characters of the novel represent in varying degrees the power of language. Father Olguin shares Abel's isolation from the world. Indeed, his isolation stems to a large degree from his literal and symbolic blindness. Blind in one eye, he is also blind to the mysteries of the Indian's spiritual life because of his pride and the prejudices of his religion. Like the earlier priest, Fray Nicolas, whose journals he reads as something of a saint's life, he is unable to articulate his concern for his parishioners. He sees them variously as "degenerate squaws … sullen bucks …" and "wizened keepers of an old and sacred alliance." He fails in his attempt to explain the motivation of Abel's killing the albino, and his suffering for Abel embarrasses and humiliates Abel. When Abel comes to tell him of Francisco's death the priest tries to express sympathy, but fails again. His position is best described in his own words: "That safety—that exclusive silence—was the sense of all his vows, certainly; it has been brought about by his own design, his act of renunciation, not the town's."

Similarly isolated is Angela Grace St. John, a white woman who comes to Los Ojos to rest and await the birth of her child. She frequently demonstrates a profound sensitivity to the mythical potential of appearances, as when she thinks of Abel as a badger or a bear, or when, watching him cut wood, she says, "I see," and is "aware of some useless agony that was spent upon the wood, some hurt she could not have imagined until now," but her concern early in the novel is to escape that power of her imagination, "to see nothing at all, nothing in the absolute." Her seduction of Abel is a battle for power which Abel wins, and which leads Angela to reject the Church in favor of the power of the individual imagination to name and create reality. Years later Abel calls for her in pain from his hospital bed, and she comes to him, not as a lover, but as one who has accepted the ability to name the mystery of their affair. She has transformed their affair into a myth of a maiden and a bear and told her son that myth. Ben Benally says about her story:

Peter always asked her about the Indians, she said, and she used to tell him a story about a young Indian brave. He was born of a bear and a maiden, and he was noble and wise. He had many adventures, and he became a great leader and saved his people. It was the story Peter liked best of all, and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it. It was real nice the way she said it, like she thought a whole lot of him, and I could tell that story was kind of secret and important to her, you know….

Ben is struck with wonder by Angela's story, and compares it to the legends told him by his grandfather years ago. The significance of these legends is explained in Tosamah's sermon about the Gospel According to St. John (which may be a hint as to the significance of Tosamah's first and Angela's last name):

My grandmother was a storyteller; she knew her way around words. She never learned to read and write, but somehow she knew the good of reading and writing; she had learned how to listen and delight. She had learned that in words and in language, and there only, she could have whole and consummate being. She told stories, and she taught me how to listen … When she told me those old stories, something strange and good and powerful was going on. I was a child, and that old woman was asking me to come directly into the presence of her mind and spirit; she was taking hold of my imagination, giving me to share in the great fortune of her wonder and delight. She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal.

Section two of the novel, which bears Tosamah's name, consists of slices of sermons delivered by him and of Abel's thoughts. Yet this section is unified by the theme of the power of the word. Abel cannot at first understand the experiences he remembers, yet immediately after his vision of the old men running after evil in the night, who, he understands, create an order in the universe, he realizes what has long been his problem: "Now, here, the world was open at his back. He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." And he begins to understand that this has happened because he has lost "the power to name and assimilate" the world. He remembers the powerlessness of being disposed of in language during his trial, the meaningless questionnaires according to which the individual is defined in white society, the blank emptiness of his prison cell, the way his fellow soldiers referred to him as "the chief" and talked about him as if he were not there. Juxtaposed to these memories are those of the wonder of the natural world, in which Abel remembers himself as being articulate. The one passage in the novel in which Abel is fully capable of describing the world around him is the one in which he describes his hunting wild geese with his brother. Abel's memories are clarified by Tosamah's sermons, and this second section of the novel serves to explain the resolution approached through Angela, Milly, Ben, and Francisco in the next sections.

Milly, a white social worker, and the Navajo Ben Benally become Abel's mistress and friend in Los Angeles after his parole from prison. Though Milly believes in the power of language, her belief is "in tests, questions and answers, words on paper … She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream, and him…." When she first enters Abel's world, it is as a social worker who is, according to Ben, "always asking him about the reservation and the army and prison and all … at first she used to bring a lot of questionnaires and read them to us, a lot of silly questions about education and health and the kind of work we were doing and all…." After Milly stops bringing these questionnaires, she begins to talk about her life to Abel, and it is her story rather than her physical love which enables Abel for the first time to share his memories of his own life. Though she does not understand the power of the word, their relationship thus starts Abel on the way toward realizing that he can talk, and toward regaining the power of the word.

Ben Benally also shares with Abel the stories of his life, but his belief in language, unlike that of Milly, is in the power of prayer, song, and legend to heal and create. It is from Ben that Abel learns the Night Chant, the healing prayer which he sings in the final section of the novel. Indeed, the third section of the novel, called appropriately the "Night Chanter," is primarily about Abel's learning the power of prayer from Ben. Ben, like Angela and the old grandmother of Tosamah, draws Abel again and again into the presence of his spirit to confront the truth; Ben says:

"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the sings, Beauty-way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.

Ben understands the way life in white society strips the reservation Indian—and has stripped Abel—of his language:

… they can't help you because you don't know how to talk to them. They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same, they're different, and they're the only words you've got.

And Ben understands both the fear which drove Abel to kill the albino and the act of the imagination by which the evil of the albino was identified:

That, you know, being so scared of something like that—that's what Tosamah doesn't understand. He's educated, and he doesn't believe in being scared like that. But he doesn't come from the reservation. He doesn't know how it is when you grow up out there someplace. You grow up out there, you know, someplace like Kayenta or Lukachukai. You grow up in the night, and there are a lot of funny things going on, things you don't know how to talk about. A baby dies, or a good horse. You get sick, or the corn dries up for no good reason. Then you remember something that happened the week before, something that wasn't right. You heard an owl, maybe, or you saw a funny kind of whirlwind; somebody looked at you sideways and a moment too long. And then you know … You just know, and you can't help being scared. It was like that with him, I guess.

Although Ben has chosen to remain in the city, his memories of life on the reservation show his reverence for the traditional Navajo way of life, and his belief in the efficacy of prayer and storytelling link him to the old man Francisco, Abel's grandfather.

Francisco is the only character who is able early in the novel to articulate his relation to the world, yet he is divided between the traditional ceremonialism of his tribe and that of the Catholic Church. This division is represented literally by his being the son of the old priest, Fray Nicolas. He has tried to teach Abel the old ways, but we are told several times by Abel that his grandfather does not understand him. At the end of the novel, however, in the "Dawn Runner" section, Abel has learned to understand Francisco. As Francisco lies on his death bed, he speaks six times on six successive dawns, in what seems to be a last attempt to tell Abel what it is to be a man. Francisco, like the teller of the legend of the arrowmaker, takes and has taken the risk of passing a heritage on to his grandsons through his words:

These things he told to his grandsons carefully, slowly and at length, because they were old and true, and they could be lost forever as easily as one generation is lost to the next, as easily as one old man might lose his voice, having spoken not enough or not at all.

Here is the risk of the oral tradition, always "one generation removed from extinction." And here is the creative and healing power of all stories told by one individual to another, the risk of entrusting one's being to another, the risk of "consummate being in language." Francisco places the stories of his young manhood, his tragic love, and the race of the black men at dawn into Abel's hands. It becomes Abel's responsibility to grasp these stories, to respect their power, and to pass them on.

Francisco dies, but Abel has learned from him and from the several other characters of the novel the power of language to create and to heal. When he continues the tradition of the race of the black men at dawn he is joining the tradition of naming the world, he is saying to the universe that the word of the ancients has survived. Running alone behind the other men whose bodies are painted black with ashes, Abel begins under his breath to sing, to pray the Navajo prayer taught to him by Ben Benally. We are told that, "he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song." Of the arrowmaker Momaday writes that, "the arrowmaker has more nearly perfect being than other men have, and a more nearly perfect right to be. We can imagine him as he imagines himself, whole and vital, going on into the unknown darkness and beyond. This last aspect of his being is primordial and profound." So it is with Abel.

In House Made of Dawn as in Cassirer's Language and Myth there is a distinction between the language of logic and the language of myth. In the novel the language of logic belongs to the white man, and has no magic or religious properties. It names, it fixes the world, but it does not go beyond itself. The language of myth belongs to the Indian, and it is this language which has the power to confront the truth, to create, and to heal. Cassirer writes of the language of myth that, "… Whatever has been fixed by a name, henceforth is not only real, but is Reality." This is the understanding which is so crucial to House Made of Dawn.

R. S. Sharma (essay date January 1982)

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SOURCE: "Vision and Form in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Sharma explores Momaday's focus on spirituality and depiction of the Native vision of the world in House Made of Dawn.]

Though initially received with cautious condescension, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn has now come to be regarded as a major statement by a major American Indian writer. Confused by the novel's "rapidly shifting and sometimes ambiguous chronological frame of reference," earlier reviewers and critics found the novel nothing but "an interesting variation of the old alienation theme"; "a social statement rather than … a substantial artistic achievement"; "a memorable failure," "a reflection, not a novel in the comprehensive sense of the word" with "awkward dialogue and affected description"; "a batch of dazzling fragments" which made one critic "itch for a blue pencil to knock out all the interstitial words that maintain the sophoric flow." They criticised its lack of a proper narrative continuity, its haziness, its ethereal characters, its indistinct plot line and its language on the rather unacceptable ground that "American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule or teach English in top ranking universities either," referring obviously to the author as a professor of English. Now, there is a greater recognition of Momaday's fictional art and critics have come to recognise its unique achievement as a novel which succeeds in "interpolating and translating" one for another culture. Despite a qualified reception the novel had succeeded in making its impact even on earlier critics though they were not sure of their own responses. They found it "a story of considerable power and beauty," "strong in imaginative imagery," creating a "world of wonder and exhilarating vastness." In more recent criticism there are signs of greater clarity of understanding of Momaday's achievement. In his review [appearing in Western American Literature 5 (Spring 1970)], John Z. Bennett had pointed out how through "a remarkable synthesis of poetic mode and profound emotional and intellectual insight into the Indians' perduring human status Momaday's novel becomes at last the very act it is dramatizing, an artistic act, a 'creation hymn.'" In ["The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-Making Ethic," Southwest Review 63 (Spring 1978)] Baine Kerr has elaborated this point to suggest that Momaday has used "the modern Anglo novel [as] a vehicle for a sacred text," that in it he is "attempting to transliterate Indian culture, myth, and sensibility into an alien art form, without loss."

That the novel is an embodiment of the American Indian's vision and his deepest spiritual yearnings is beyond doubt. How this vision has been translated into the language of fiction remains yet to be examined. In this paper, I intend to examine how Momaday translates the Indian's "eye and action" view of the world in fictional terms. A proper understanding of Momaday's vision of the American Indian is, therefore, an essential prerequisite for a grasp of the novel's complexity.

The novel, a blend of many techniques, achieves its synthesis through the "eye" which is peculiar to the Indian. In an essay called "A Vision beyond Time and Space" [appearing in Life 71 (2 July 1971)] Momaday provides us many insights into the Indian's vision of life. Wonder, according to him, is the principal part of the Indian's vision.

His active life is nothing but "an affirmation of the wonder and regard, a testament to the realization of a quest for vision." "This native vision, this gift of seeing truly, with wonder and delight into the natural world" according to him "is informed by a certain attitude of reverence and self-respect. It is a matter of extrasensory as well as sensory perception…. In addition to the eye, it involves the intelligence, the instinct and the imagination. It is the perception not only of objects and forms, but also of essences and ideals." To quote him, "Most Indian people are able to see in these terms." This vision is "peculiarly native and distinct, and it determines who and what they are to a great extent." It is indeed "the basis upon which they identify themselves as individuals and as a race." It is the "very nucleus" of their self residing in their blood. Thus, in Momaday's world view the Indian is identified in his ability to see differently. Commenting on the "cultural nearsightedness" of contemporary Americans, he says: "our eyes, it may be, have been trained too long upon the superficial, and artificial, aspects of our environment … and consequently we fail to see into the nature and meaning of our own humanity." He emphasizes the need "to enter upon a vision quest of our own, that is, a quest after vision itself" and feels that the American Indian was "perhaps the most culturally secure of all Americans" because he was gifted with a vision: "In the integrity of his vision he is wholly in possession of himself and of the world around him; he is quintessentially alive."

The "equations" that constitute this vision are "a sense of heritage, of a vital community in terms of origin and destiny, a profound investment of the mind and spirit in the oral traditions of literature, philosophy and religion." House Made of Dawn is essentially a realisation of these equations. It is about vision, about perception, articulation, repossession and reenactment of this vision. It is Genesis and Apocalypse at the same time. The fusion of vision and form in this novel which [Marshall Sprague writes in "Anglos and Indians," New York Times Book Review 63 (9 June 1968)] is "as subtly brought out as a piece of Navajo silverware" is a unique achievement in contemporary fiction; it has [according to Baine] "mythified Indian consciousness into a modern novel." The novel demands of the reader an intuitive grasp of the Indian vision. Momaday himself defines this vision in terms of a song [in "I am Alive," in Jules B. Billard's 1974 The World of the American Indian]:

        You see, I am alive,
        You see, I stand in good relation to the earth,
        You see, I stand in good relation to the Gods,
        You see, I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful,
        You see, I stand in good relation to you,
        You see, I am alive, I am alive.

Thus, "a sense of place, of the sacred, of the beautiful, of humanity" are essential components of the Indian vision which is at once spiritual, moral and esthetic. It is woven in the very fabric of Indian life. For the Indian, every creative act is an act of "blood recollection,… a whole and inevocable act of the imagination." It is a "synthesis," not a general experience and in this "there is an evocation of tribal intelligence, an exposition of racial memory." Indian art, according to Momaday "is the essence of abstraction, and the abstraction of essences" and this understanding "of order, and spatial relationships, proportion and design," is most fully realized in language, in the oral tradition. "The oral tradition of Indian," says Momaday "even more than his plastic arts, is vast and various." In its stories and songs, its legends and love and prayers, it is not only "exceptionally rich and imaginative," it also reflects "an understanding of, and belief in, the power and beauty of language" that is lost on those "who have, by and large, have only the experience of a written tradition." This vision is one of "great moment and beauty" but it "has certainly to be believed in order to be seen." We can see House Made of Dawn only if we believe in this vision. The key to this vision apparently lies in an understanding of the oral tradition that Momaday seeks to translate in terms of fiction.

The novel begins and ends with fragments of a traditional song as Abel, the protagonist and symbolic carrier of this tradition, joins the dawn runners in a ritual enactment of a primitive ceremony after the death of his grandfather Francisco. Thus, Abel and Francisco are the two major characters of the novel, linking the past, present and future. In their polar lives, the two re-enact the "quintessential life of the Indian."

The novel begins as Abel comes home after his shattering experience in the war in a "truck," while Francisco is going to receive him in his "wagon." It ends while Francisco is going to join the spirits of the dead and Abel goes with the dawn runners in quest of the vision of the race. The novel is about this "quest" for vision. It begins where it ends, producing the notion of a circularity that is interminable. There are points in it which give us an impression of terminality but there is no termination, each ending is a new kind of beginning. The novel is about a series of beginnings and a series of endings which keep turning on each other. It therefore does not offer us a plot but only fragments of a vision, the totality of which we can arrive at only if we read it "creatively" recreating the entire experience as it is enacted in racial memory. That way alone can we see its unity and its meaning, for there is a unity between the four sections "The Long Hair," "The Priest of the Sun," "The Night Chanter," and "The Dawn Runner," which are aspects of the same reality, the same experience, the same tradition. Though primarily concerned with Abel's quest for identity the novel is also about Francisco who, as Baine Kerr points out, "works as a structuring principle" in the novel and "acts as the lodestone to the novel's conflicting energies." Abel's tragedy lies in the fact that he does not have the vision which will enable him to see his own destiny. More specifically it lies in his failure to connect himself with the vision of his race available in the oral tradition. He must recover this vision before he can recover his self. The seemingly confused and hazy narrative suggests Able's incapacity to see properly his own place in the universe.

The novel begins during the "relocation" years, the most inglorious period in the history of the American Indian, but the choice of the period seems to be suggestive of the fact that before people "relocate" him, Abel and his people must "relocate" themselves, must find their proper place and destiny. Abel returns from the war totally disoriented, a long hair, and the novel records his progression towards the House Made of Dawn. He must recover the vision which he has lost and which alone will help him to become the dawn runner. He must "relocate" himself by repossessing what he has lost, his vision, his sense of place. Abel initially appears as one who has lost his sense of land. He cannot relate himself to any place. He is out of place everywhere. We cannot appreciate his predicament without taking into account the fact that away from the land he is like fish out of water, suggested in the beginning of the section "The Priest of the Sun." Cut off from their land, the Indians are like fish out of water that "writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon," "the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth." This land-and-man equation is crucial to the understanding of the novel. To quote Momaday [from "I am Alive"],

the Indian conceives of himself in terms of the land. His imagination of himself is also and at once an imagination of the physical world from which he proceeds and to which he returns in the journey of his life. The landscape is his natural element; it is the only dimension in which his life is possible. The notion that he is independent of the earth, that he can be severed from it and remain whole, does not occur to him….

In his view the earth is sacred….

It is a living entity, in which living entities have origin and destiny. The Indian does not lose sight of it, even; he is bound to the earth forever in his spirit.

Abel's tragedy is that he is alienated from the land and in the process alienated from his true self. This connection between man and land is suggested repeatedly in the novel by reference to land and landscapes. The House Made of Dawn is rooted in a land "still and strong" "beautiful and around." This philosophy of landscape is most explicit wherever there are references to the sacred complex of the Indian society. Participating in the ceremony of eagle watching, Abel gets a sense of the "spatial majesty of the sky" and discovers a strange and brilliant light "that lies" upon the world, in which "all the objects in the landscape" are "washed clean and set away in the distance." In the landscape he also discovers a divinity, for

Such vastness makes for illusion, a kind of illusion that comprehends reality, and where it exists there is always wonder and exhilaration.

When Abel returns he discovers his loneliness, as if he were already miles and months away "from everything he knew and had always known." The land-life equation is more explicit in the section "July 28." Here life in form and motion seems to be emerging from the land itself. Each form of life has only a "tenure in land." Abel discovers his lost connection only when he is able to relate himself to the land sacred to his forefathers. The violence that man has done to nature is revealed in "an old copper mine" that is "a ghost," with its "black face" and its "gray wooden frame."

The way alienation from land cripples Abel's faculties is revealed in his incapacity to see and articulate. Abel discovers his lost sacrality and his place by participating in the rituals and ceremonies of the tribe that lead him to a greater and greater clarity of vision. He discovers his sense of place by perceiving "the culturally imposed symbolic order" inherited from his grandfather. In the beginning he is insecure, and inarticulate. He is cut off from his roots and consequently he has lost his voice. "One of the most tragic things about Abel," Momaday says [in an interview in Sun Tracks: An American Indian Literary Magazine 2 (1976)], "is his inability to express himself. He is in some ways a man without a voice…. So I think of him as having been removed from oral tradition." In the novel itself, Momaday refers to Abel's initial inability to speak. After his return from the town, he had tried "to speak to his grandfather," but "he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythms of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it." The words are there "like memory, in the reach of hearing," words that could take hold "of the moment and make it eternal." He could get back his wholeness, "Had he been able to say … anything of his language which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance." He is dumb, not just silent but "inarticulate." He needs words and language to discover himself. When he is in the valley where "nothing lay between the object and the eye," he wants to make a song "out of the coloured canyon," but "he had not the right words together." He wants to write a creation song "of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills." He is able to sing that song only when he becomes the dawn runner, when he is able "to see at last without having to think." As he discovers his vision, he runs and begins to sing, "There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song." He at last discovers the words that he needs to be a dawn runner but that comes only after he cuts his way through the Babel that surrounds him.

This philosophy of the soundless word is beautifully adumbrated in the sermons of Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun. In his sermons, reinterpreting the Biblical "Principio Verbum," Tosamah offers a severe indictment of a dominantly verbal culture. Abel's final song is thematically linked with Tosamah's Genesis story:

It was almost nothing in itself, the smallest seed of sound—but it took hold of the stillness and there was motion forever; it took hold of the silence and there was sound and everything began.

The indictment of a purely verbal culture comes sharply in Tosamah's indictment of the Anglo love for words:

Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes, and suffixes and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the word. And in all this he subtracts the truth.

This indictment is followed by criticism of a culture based on the manipulation of mere words:

The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted, as indeed he must, for nothing in his world is so commonplace. On every side of him there are words by the millions…. He has diluted and multiplied the word, and words have begun to close in upon him…. It may be that he will perish by the word.

Abel's final triumph comes, therefore, not in a verbal triumph, but in a formal movement, a ritual that relates him at once to his forefathers and to a spirituality of motion and movement. The race is a manifestation of a newly earned knowledge that is power. Momaday comments on the significance of the race [in his essay "The Morality of Indian Hating"]:

It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch these runners is to know that they draw with every step some elementary power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things. In the tempo of that race there is time to ponder morality and demoralization, hungry wolves and falling stars.

His novel is not only about the recovery of this vision but it is also about the way it is recovered. It is not only about seeing, it is also about doing. The illusion of mist and haziness that Momaday creates initially is related to Abel's incapacity to see. He recovers his vision and with that his other faculties only gradually by participating in the collective heritage, which is mythic and historical at the same time. It comes to have through the discovery of the sacrality of life, another major equation of the Indian vision. Abel repossesses his sense of the sacred by participating in the ceremonies and rituals of the race. In them he is "restored as a man and as a race." Through his narrative Momaday wants his readers also to participate in this sacred ritual of recovery. The novel, therefore, assumes the nature of a sacred text in which the ethos and mythos of the Indian are embodied in a manner that is peculiar to the Indian mind.

Momaday, therefore, narrates the story not in the conventional manner but rather in the Indian manner, the manner of the oral tradition. It is [according to Momaday] a fictional transfer of a memory "that persists in the blood and there only," a memory that remains "beyond evolutionary distances." It is "a blood recollection," "an intricate image" indeed, composed of innumerable details "vivid and immediate." That the novel seeks to recapture the rhythms of the oral narrative is suggested not only in the story of Abel but also in those of Tosamah, The Priest of the Sun and Francisco, The Night Chanter. The narrative validates the oral tradition which helps Abel recover his identity finally, and operates through a series of powerful images which leave an overwhelming impact on our consciousness. Those images are seen through the consciousness of Abel and that is why they come in fragments, but through them and with Abel we see the "sense of beauty of proportion and design" that is the essential qualification of the dawn runners. The section "The Long Hair" is a series of such "intricate images" which leave us disturbed, looking for order, for patience, for connection, imposing upon us the need for a vision, a vision where all things "are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird."

The visual impact of the Indian eye can be felt in the narrative skills of Momaday. It is most powerfully felt in the scene depicting the flight of the golden eagles in the air, in the narration of the feat of Santiago, and in the bear hunt. They give us a vision which is peculiarly Indian, revealing his sense of form and beauty. For in all their inchoateness they have a unity that transcends all. The insects, birds and animals that populate the novel are part of the Indian's consciousness; he sees himself and the divine and the sacred through them. Francisco, who is snaring the sacred in the bird initially, discovers it finally in the bear. This sense of the sacred, which is peculiar to the Indian, can be seen in all that Francisco does. In and through him Abel relates himself to his heritage. In the section "The Long Hair," Abel returns to his grandfather physically; his final return to him is rituo-symbolic.

Abel has a mixed heritage, a heritage in which the racial line between the Red and the White is totally blurred—the Indian is distinguished not by his colour but by his vision. His genealogy is confused, "He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia or an Isleta, an outsider anyway," which makes him an archetypal Indian, representing all Indians. On the other hand, through his grandfather he inherits an ancestry which links him with the white Christian race. Through Francisco he is at once connected with Father Fray Nicholas and Porcingula Pecos. The historic identity of Fray Nicholas is established through the concrete device of Diary and Letters, but Porcingula remains enigmatic, the archetypal mother in her various aspects. She is, as Kerr puts it "many things; the totem of Bahkyush; a Christian saint (Maria de los Angeles); a whore; Francisco's lover; and in remote yet richly possible connections Pony, Angela, and most importantly Tai-me, Momaday's heartfelt creation deity." Through her, Abel participates in the diaspora of Bahkyush, the feast of Santiago, the holy rites and rituals of regeneration and reawakening. From Fray Nicholas he also inherits a legacy of sin and guilt, which he keeps confronting again and again. It relates him not only to the eagle hunters but also to the "marauding bands of buffalo hunters and thieves." It reminds him of a long lost war, which impinges on his consciousness again in the image of the tank and disorients him for the time-being.

The novel is about his reorientation, the most crucial aspect of which is his understanding of evil. Momaday's treatment of evil is subtle, complex and profound; for him evil is what the Indian is not. In his treatment of evil Momaday again shows [what he terms] the humanity of the Indian's perception, "a moral regard for the beings, animate and inanimate, among which man must live his life." Consequently, the novel is free from the kind of racial violence that characterizes the fiction of some of the black writers. Evil does not have a specific identity in the novel though [Alan R. Velie has pointed out in his "Cain and Abel in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," Journal of the West 17 (April 1978)] that by making Abel an Indian, Momaday has indirectly led many [to] reexamine the identity of Cain. It is definitely associated with whiteness, but by making it a matter of chance in the case of the Albino, Momaday seems to imply that pigmentation is only accidental: "Whiteness has an ambiguity that is creative in the Albino—the white man, the Albino, that equation whatever it is." It is "in the Melvillian sense," as Velie put it "the intensifying agent in things most appalling to mankind." What the novel succeeds in communicating is the fact that despite repeated betrayal the Indian continues to be the carrier of the seed of life, a source of renewal and regeneration. The other characters of evil in the novel are similarly vague and shadowy, almost spectral. They are evil presences like the Albino, who follows the movements of Francisco and whom we vaguely identify through the "coloured glass." The evil figures appear as those who seek to deprive Abel of his sacred heritage or of his mobility, most characteristically expressed in his manual movements. It is significant that Martinez, the culebra, seeks to destroy Abel by destroying his hands, "And his hands were broken; they were broken all over." The characters of evil disappear as soon as they appear, never to be heard of again. By universalizing evil and by reducing whiteness to a metaphysical and ambiguous dimension, Momaday strikes a positive note in Red-White relationship.

This brings us to the consideration of the most controversial incident in the novel, the murder of the Albino. There is no "explicit explanation of motives" and the reader is left wondering about the exact nature of the entire episode. There is a strong element in the novel to suggest that Abel does not think of the Albino as a human presence. The narrative suggests him to be a kind of "presence" for when Abel and the Albino speak to each other, they say something so low "as if the meaning of what they said was strange and infallible." The Albino is constantly described as a "white man" whose laughter ends "in a strange, inhuman cry" and it "issued only from the tongue and teeth of the great evil mouth, and it fell away from the blue lips and there was nothing left of it." The language clearly suggests the image of a snake here and it is obvious that Abel sees the Albino as a snake. The narration of the murder also indicates that the Albino tries to kill Abel in a mortal coil, a fatal embrace, which has homosexual overtones. That Abel sees the Albino as a snake is again emphasized when he tells in the court, "Well, your honours, it was this way, see? I cut up a little snake meat out there in the sand." Father Olguin suggests it to be "An evil spirit," attributing it to a "psychology about which we know very little." For him it was "an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us." Even otherwise it is indicated that Abel sees the Albino as a witch or sawah, for Abel's inexplicable behaviour in the war is also suggestive of his capacity to visualize evil in terms of his own psyche. It is obvious from the narrative that he responds to the tank not as a machine but as an evil presence, which so disorients him that he temporarily loses his sense of identity and his connection with land, "He reached for something, but he had no notion of what it was; his hand closed upon earth and the cold, wet leaves." Later in his delirium, he challenges it in the instinctive manner with a war dance, "And there he was, hopping around with his finger up in the air and giving it to that tank in Sioux or Algonquin or something." These incidents clearly refer to the instinctive self of Abel which is liberated from the white presence.

The snake-albino-whiteman-evil connection is too complicated to lead to any clear explanation, but it is apparent that Abel is striving to get rid of something not natural to his self. Earlier, he kills the young eagle to liberate it of its anguish, symbolically liberating himself from the hood that deprives him of his vision. It is quite possible that Abel kills the Albino, "as a frustrated response to the whiteman and Christianity," or in him he kills "the whiteman in the Indian" or "a part of himself and his culture which he can no longer recognize and control" [Lawrence J. Evers, "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," Western American Literature 11 (Winter 1977)]. Abel's responses after the incident are like that of a person bitten by a snake and Tosamah describes his case as that of a "snakebite."

Abel's reemergence is like a therapeutic process, a kind of exorcism, a process of healing in which the ritual of the sexual act has a tremendous significance. In the Indian world-view the act of sexual union is a sacred act in which all secrets, even those of sorcery and evil, are revealed to the participants. This is suggested by Momaday's detailed narration of the sexual act and its impact on the participants, whose natures are altered by the experience. Sex in the novel is a fertility rite which leads to healing and restoration of self. It is almost a rite of initiation through which the sacred enters into the human like the bear that Angela St. John thinks to have conceived. These episodes are thematically connected with the quest of the life-seed that Abel is looking for. The two most crucial of these rites are the ones between Angela and Abel and Porcingula and Francisco which initiate them into their heroic quests. The two episodes have a symbolic function, for, the union of Francisco and Porcingula is reenacted in the union of Abel and Angela St. John, who, identifying Abel with the bear, connects him with the bear that offers Francisco the secret of eternity and makes him the seer and medicine man of his people. In the two, myth and history become social reality. It is obvious that throughout the novel, Momaday's stress is not on race but on a vision and a participation mystique peculiar to a race. Abel overcomes all onslaughts on his self by discovering this vision which enables him to participate in a tradition that goes back to a mythic past. Momaday's art lies in his ability to give us glimpses of this lost world in a world now full of hatred, violence and bloodshed. In him vision and form become one and the same.

Alan R. Velie (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "House Made of Dawn: Nobody's Protest Novel," in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 52-64.

[Velie is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he presents a thematic overview in which he discusses the dangers of viewing House Made of Dawn as a protest novel, then maintains that the work is about the protagonist's search for acceptance of his identity and heritage.]

House Made of Dawn is Momaday's masterpiece. In fact, I do not think it is excessive praise to say that it is one of the best American novels of the last decade. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1969, an indication that its merits have not been lost on the critics. Although it has been thoroughly praised, it has been less thoroughly understood.

House Made of Dawn is the story of Abel (we never learn his last name), an illegitimate son of a Tanoan mother and an unknown father, probably a Navajo. The story begins with Abel's return from World War II to his village of Walatowa, a fictionalized version of the Jemez Pueblo where Momaday grew up. Abel is so drunk when he arrives that he fails to recognize his grandfather, who has come to pick him up. Abel feels lost on his return, and obviously his problem is largely that he has lost his cultural identity.

On the Festival of Santiago, Abel enters a ceremonial game in which men on horseback attempt to pull a rooster out of the ground. The rider who accomplishes this feat is then entitled to beat another of the participants with the rooster. The winner, an albino Tanoan named Fragua, chooses to beat Abel, who is unnerved and humiliated. Several days later Abel kills the albino in a knife fight outside a bar and is sent to jail for seven years.

When Abel gets out of jail he is "relocated" in Los Angeles, where he works diligently at his job for a short period. But he is harassed by a sadistic policeman named Martinez and taunted by a Kiowa named Tosamah, who considers Abel an ignorant savage. Eventually Abel turns to drink and loses his job. In his drunkenness Abel attacks Martinez, and Martinez gives him a beating that is almost fatal. After a long, slow recovery, Abel returns to Walatowa as his grandfather is dying. When his grandfather dies, Abel performs the traditional preburial rituals and then prepares to enter a traditional Tanoan race for good hunting and harvests that his grandfather had won years before. The book ends with Abel running, singing the words to a Navajo prayer. Apparently he has found a sort of peace of mind by joining in the cultural life of the Tanoan community.

Knowing about Momaday's experiences as a Kiowa growing up among the Navajo and Jemez is very important if we are to understand Momaday's treatment of Abel. There are also recognizable literary influences: Momaday owes a debt to writers like Faulkner for his use of stream of consciousness and limited point of view—for instance, in the scene in which Abel lies half dead on the beach after Martinez beats him. Also apparent is the influence of Melville's symbolism in the significance Momaday makes of the whiteness of the albino.

The result of these influences is a masterfully complex novel. Unfortunately, the tendency of most white American readers (at least if my students of the past ten years are any indication) is to read the book simplistically, as a protest novel. According to this reading, Abel, the Indian protagonist, is a noble red victim of the barbaric forces of white America. The impression is based on several things. First, because Momaday is himself an Indian, readers often expect him to blame Abel's failure on racial injustice. Second, Abel's name is an obvious allusion to the Bible's first victim. When I ask my students who is the Cain that destroys Abel, they always answer that it is white society. Last, if not least, there is the inevitable comparison with Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, an act memorialized in the famous Marine Corps statue. When Hayes returned to his reservation after the war, he became an alcoholic and one evening, out of doors, he passed out and died from exposure. His death received a good deal of attention from the press, and Hayes's story served as the basis of the film The Outsider. Tony Curtis played Hayes in accordance with the Hollywood stereotype of the Indian as victim. The point of the movie was that Indians can die for their country but cannot live in it with dignity.

Whatever the reasons for the reader to believe that Abel is simply a victim of white society, the conclusion is incorrect—far too simplistic. Momaday presents a highly-complex portrait of Abel and does not rely on Hollywood clichés or on those of students.

First of all, although there is a general similarity in the situation of Abel and Ira Hayes—both are Indian veterans from the Southwest who cannot readjust to their role in postwar America, and so turn to alcohol—the resemblance may simply be coincidental. Momaday has said that his chief models in creating Abel were Indians he knew at Jemez. In an interview in November, 1974, Momaday told Charles Woodard, "I knew an Abel at Jemez who was a close neighbor…. I was thinking of him; he's one of the people who adds to the composite Abel."

No doubt Momaday was familiar with Hayes's story, and it may have been somewhat in his mind when he created the character of Abel, but there is an enormous difference between Momaday's complex character and the stereotype into which Hollywood turned Hayes. To those who read press accounts of Hayes's death or saw The Outsider, Hayes was a hero during the war and a victim of white injustice afterwards. In the normal way these terms are used, Abel was neither. In a very curious, ambiguous sense, he may have been both, but in ways so different from Hayes that there is really no basis for comparison.

The only glimpse we get of Abel's combat experience is a curious scene in which Abel gives an enemy tank the finger. His fellow soldiers find this bizarre, not heroic. The gesture, totally inexplicable in terms of modern warfare, seems a rough equivalent of the old plains Indian custom of counting coups. Plains warriors considered it more glorious to ride up to an armed enemy and touch him harmlessly with a stick they called a coupstick, than to shoot him from a distance. Counting coups, which insulted the enemy by showing him that you scorned his ability to harm you, seems to be what Abel has in mind, though Momaday never says so. This is not to imply that Abel, a Navajo/Tanoan, would have known about or have consciously thought about coups; nevertheless, he is displaying the same attitude toward the enemy. Momaday, a Kiowa, would certainly know about counting coups.

The matter of Abel as victim of white injustice brings us to the next point, the significance of his name. Momaday told Woodard, "I know about Abel and the Bible and that certainly was in my mind, but I don't think I chose the name on that account." This seems a slight evasion. Momaday may have chosen the name because he knew an Abel, but he does not give Abel a surname, and a man as sensitive to symbolic meanings as Momaday could not have failed to realize that his readers would have imagined a link between a character named simply Abel and the Bible's first victim. The question is, victim of what? In these secular times, even in the Bible Belt, where I teach, students have forgotten the Bible. Cain was Abel's brother, not some hostile outsider. In House Made of Dawn two of the men who do the worst damage to Abel are his brother Indians, John Tosamah, the Kiowa "Priest of the Sun," who ridicules Abel until he drives him to drink (admittedly a short haul) and Juan Reyes Fragua, the Tanoan albino who humiliates Abel, and whom Abel murders, as a result spending seven years in jail. Abel's third tormentor, the sadistic policeman Martinez, is either a Chicano or an Indian with a Spanish surname—at any rate, he is not an Anglo-American. He appears to be a free-lance grafter, and not in any very direct sense a representative of the white society the students have indicted.

The albino is a very curious figure. From Fray Nicolas's letter of January 5, 1875, we know that at the time Fragua and Abel participate in the Festival of Santiago, Fragua is seventy years old, although apparently still remarkably athletic. In some mysterious way the albino is evil. In the scene in which the albino watches, or spies on, Abel's grandfather Francisco, Francisco senses the presence of evil, although he sees no one. The scene is ambiguous, but it is evident that Momaday wants the reader to apprehend the albino as evil and possibly to recognize him as a witch (Indians use the term for men and women both). [In "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," American Indian Quarterly 2, No. 1 (1975)] H. S. McAllister argues that the albino is linked through witchcraft and possession with Fray Nicolas and the Bahkyush witch Nicolas teah-whau. The three are, in McAllister's words, "three manifestations of a single person." I find this thesis far-fetched, or at least in excess of the evidence McAllister has marshaled, but according to Momaday himself, the albino is a witch. Momaday told Woodard about the passage in question: "He [the albino] is manifesting the evil of his presence. Witchcraft and the excitement of it is part of that too." Abel is aware that the albino is evil, but his decision to kill him seems to spring from a specific incident, his beating at the Festival of Santiago.

When the albino pulls the rooster out of the ground and chooses Abel to beat, Abel is infuriated by the humiliation and determines to kill the albino. Momaday refers to this gory ritual as a game, and it is a game in the sense that it is an activity done for entertainment and governed by a well-defined set of arbitrary rules. If Abel decides to play the game, he should be aware of the risks and willing to suffer the consequences. His anger and decision to kill the albino exceed the rules of the game, and indicate a mind out of touch with its cultural context. It is as if a black halfback, considering it a racial incident when he is tackled by a white linebacker, wants to fight him. A man who does not want to be knocked down should not play football, and a man who does not want to be beaten with a rooster should avoid participating in rituals in which that is the practice. Nonetheless, Abel does not see it that way. He kills the albino.

In understanding the albino we must recognize the symbolic dimension to his character. The conjunction of whiteness and evil inevitably suggests Melville's Moby Dick. In chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," Melville describes how white not only symbolizes purity and goodness to men but also transmits the spectral qualities of terror and evil. As Melville puts it, white is "the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind." Melville particularly mentions the albino man who "so particularly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin." Momaday told Woodard of his special interest in Melville, whom he teaches in his course on antiromantic American literature. In his interview with Woodard he confirms the influence of Melville in the depiction of the albino.

One of the most interesting things about the albino is that throughout House Made of Dawn, Momaday refers to him as the "white man." We must remember that we are dealing with symbolism here, not allegory. Momaday's albino does not stand for Caucasian Americans in the way that Bunyan's Mr. Wordly Wiseman stands for earthly knowledge. Primarily, Juan Reyes Fragua is a Tanoan Indian who interacts with other characters on a purely realistic level. There is an additional symbolic and ironic sense, however, in which the "white man" represents white society. Perhaps this is most strongly apparent in the scene in which Abel murders the albino. Although Momaday is describing a stabbing, the terms he uses are obviously sexual:

The white man raised his arms, as if to embrace him…. Then he closed his hands on Abel and drew him close. Abel heard the strange excitement of the white man's breath, and the quick, uneven blowing in his ear, and felt the blue shivering lips upon him, felt even the scales of the lips and hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing.

What is happening here, on a literal level, is that Abel is killing the albino while, on a symbolic level, the white man is raping Abel. What exactly this means in symbolic terms is impossible to put neatly into words. Momaday has told Woodard about Fragua: "There is a kind of ambiguity that is creative in the albino—the white man, the albino, that equation, whatever it is."

Abel's other "brother" is Tosamah, the enigmatic Priest of the Sun who resembles Momaday in a number of respects. First of all, Tosamah is the only Kiowa in House Made of Dawn. Second, Momaday's description of Tosamah—"big, lithe as a cat, narrow eyed"—fits Momaday himself. More important, Momaday has Tosamah express some of his most deeply felt ideas about the sacred nature of the word and the power of language in the sermon Tosamah delivers to his parishoners. Finally, and most remarkably, when Tosamah tells his life story, it is the story of Momaday's life. The chapter headed "January 27" in the "Priest of the Sun" section of House Made of Dawn is also the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain.

If Tosamah is the character in House Made of Dawn who most closely resembles Momaday, how do we account for the way Tosamah despises Abel? Tosamah says of Abel that the whites

deloused him and gave him a lot of free haircuts and let him fight on their side. But was he grateful? Hell, no, man. He was too damn dumb to be civilized…. He turned out to be a real primitive sonuvabitch, and the first time he got hold of a knife he killed a man. That must have embarrassed the hell out of them.

Obviously Tosamah is being ironic about the generosity of the whites—"they let him fight on their side"—but he means what he says about Abel—that he is "too damn dumb to be civilized," and "a real primitive sonuvabitch." Tosamah does not see anything noble in Abel's savagery. He is ashamed that Abel, a member of the same ethnic group, has made a spectacle of himself. Abel has "embarrassed the hell out of" Tosamah by fulfilling the white stereotype of the Indian—primitive, violent, superstitious, backward, and, significantly, dumb—inarticulate.

Tosamah is so scornful of Abel that he baits him until he breaks Abel's spirit. After Tosamah's taunts, Abel gets violently drunk and loses his job; with it go his hopes for a new life in California. Tosamah never shows any compassion or understanding of Abel; to Tosamah, Abel is simply an object of derision. Momaday's attitude toward Abel is obviously more sympathetic than Tosamah's, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Tosamah reflects one side of Momaday.

Recall that, during Momaday's youth, although he too was an Indian, he was an outsider among the Navajo and Jemez Indians. In his fantasy world he often saw himself as white and Indians as hostile. This side of Momaday is reflected in Tosamah.

But Tosamah is only one side of Momaday, and he is a caricature at that. Momaday gives him the middle name of Big Bluff, and Tosamah, in fact, sounds very much like the Kiowa word for "woman of the house," to·so·a·mah. Momaday says Tosamah has the voice of a "great dog," and there are deflating, comic touches in his sermon. "May the Great Spirit—can we knock off the talking back there—be with you always." In short, Tosamah reflects Momaday's self-irony, and he is clearly more of a caricature than a self-portrait of the artist. If Momaday is like Tosamah, however, he is also like Abel: both are outsiders. Although Momaday got along well with the Jemez, his accounts of early life at Jemez Pueblo make it clear that he felt he was different from the local Indians.

Abel's problems, in fact, seem to stem chiefly from the intolerance of other Indians. I do not mean just a few individuals like Tosamah and the albino, but the whole Tanoan community of Walatowa. Abel's mother and grandfather Francisco were Tanoans, but Abel was considered an outsider because of his illegitimacy: "He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange."

Abel's mother and brother die during his childhood, and Abel is alone in a hostile world save for his grandfather. Obviously Abel is not living successfully within the Indian cultural tradition before he goes to live in the white world, although this is the impression given on the cover of the New American Library edition—the one the students use: "His name was Abel, and he lived in two worlds. One was that of his fathers, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, the ecstasy of the drug called peyote. The other was the world of the twentieth century, goading him into a compulsive cycle of sexual exploits, dissipation, and disgust." Abel's chief problem, both before he goes to war and immediately after he returns, is that he is not living in the world of his fathers. He does not know who his father is, nor does he know who he is himself.

Abel's problem is most acute just after his return from the war. He finds that he is totally alienated from his grandfather. He is frustrated because he is completely inarticulate. Language, the power of the word, is extremely important to Momaday, and he makes it clear that, because he cannot express himself, Abel is emotionally stifled and repressed, and so potentially violent.

His return to the town had been a failure, for all his looking forward. He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it…. Had he been able to say … anything of his own language … [it] would have once again shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb.

A short time later Momaday describes Abel's walk into the hills:

He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung slowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.

The song Abel is looking for is the Navajo hymn "House Made of Dawn," which he later learns from his friend Benally.

Abel remains inarticulate and emotionally repressed throughout his years in jail and during his relocation in Los Angeles, where, as Momaday points out symbolically with a scene that includes grunions, he is like a fish out of water. Abel achieves emotional release with the death of his grandfather. When Francisco dies, Abel buries him in the prescribed Tanoan fashion. For the first time since his disastrous participation in the rooster ceremony, Abel takes part in a Tanoan ritual. The act symbolizes his entry into the culture of his fathers. Immediately after preparing his grandfather for burial, Abel participates in the traditional race for good hunting and harvests. His grandfather had won this contest more than half a century earlier, in what had been the climactic point of his life: "Some years afterward, when he was no longer young and his leg had been stiffened by disease, he made a pencil drawing on the first page of a ledger book which he kept with his store of prayer feathers in the rafters of his room. It was the likeness of a straight black man running in the snow." One cannot help thinking of the contrast between him and A. E. Housman's runner ("To an Athlete Dying Young"), who dies shortly after winning his race. Francisco survives to join the "rout / Of lads that wore their honors out, / Runners whom renown outran."

As the novel ends, Abel smears his arms and chest with ashes, as the ritual prescribes, and joins the runners, though unlike Francisco he runs behind them. As he runs, he sings the song he had longed to sing: "House made of pollen, house made of dawn."

This is a happy ending, or as happy an ending as the novel will allow. Abel has entered into the ceremonial life of his people, and he has regained his voice. His running is symbolic of his emotional and spiritual health, even though his legs buckle and he falls. For him to win the race would be impossibly corny—a totally discordant note of contrived cheerfulness.

Abel does not win this race, nor does Momaday imply that he will win in the future. Yet by the simple act of entering the race Abel establishes that, despite the onslaughts of the Cains who have attacked him, he has survived. Abel survives because he is able to integrate himself into Tanoan culture. But this is not to say that he has rejected white culture and returned to an Indian culture. There is no such thing as a pure culture.

The culture of Walatowa is particularly complex. It was originally a Tanoan Pueblo settlement. When the Conquistadores conquered the Pueblos, they introduced the Spanish language and Catholicism; with the Mexican War, Walatowa became part of America, and a new language and culture were superimposed on the other two. For centuries the Walatoans practiced both Christianity and their native religion, but slowly the religions merged, and by the time of the novel's central action the people of Walatowa have their own peculiar brand of Pueblo Christianity, with its own rituals and mythology. Momaday explicitly chronicles the shift. Fray Nicolas, the nineteenth-century priest who keeps a diary, reveals his horror that his sacristan Francisco (Abel's grandfather) participates in the traditional Tanoan ceremonies by dancing in the Kiva, the sacred dugout of the Pueblos. Fray Nicolas believes that practicing traditional Indian rituals is sinful and disgusting, and he expects the Holy Spirit to strike Francisco down when the boy assists at mass. By 1945 the attitude of the church apparently had changed, because the current priest, Father Olguin, proudly shows Angela St. John the ceremonial dancing and other rituals that take place on the Feast of Santiago.

In fact, the whole myth and ceremony of Santiago is an illustration of the merging of the cultures. Santiago is Momaday's name for San Diego (both are Spanish names for Saint James), the saint whose day was celebrated in Jemez on November 12. The Tanoans celebrate the holiday in the novel by going to mass and then carrying an effigy of Porcingula, Our Lady of the Angels—a saint they inherited from the Bahkyush—through the streets to her position next to the kiva where

The Lady would stand all day in her shrine, and the governor and his officials would sit in attendance at her feet, and one by one the dancers of the squash and turquoise clans would appear on top of the kiva, coming out upon the sky in their rich ceremonial dress, descend the high ladder to the earth, and kneel before her.

Momaday's myth of Santiago also shows the blending of the cultures, as it combines the Christian genre of the saints tale, with its miracles, and the Indian myth of origin that features the trickster as culture hero. Santiago, who escapes the evil king by the miracle of the rooster and horses (which is as much trickster prank as Christian miracle), ends by providing plants and animals for the Pueblo people, the standard task of the culture-hero trickster.

Like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, House Made of Dawn ends as it begins. Abel is running and, as he runs, he sings. It is important to notice what he sings: the Navajo prayer song, House Made of Dawn. Abel has found himself in his own culture, a blend of Tanoan, Spanish, and American influences, and he is singing a Navajo song, appropriate in light of his own mixed ancestry.

Bernard A. Hirsch (essay date Winter 1983)

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SOURCE: "Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 307-20.

[In the following essay, Hirsch analyzes the characters of Martinez, Tosamaah, and Benally and their relationships with the protagonist, noting that for these characters Abel is a symbol of contempt and a reminder of their Native selves.]

N. Scott Momaday, referring to his protagonist Abel, has said, "None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither." True as this is of Abel in House Made of Dawn, it is truer still of Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally because they, unlike Abel, try earnestly to conform to Euro-American social values. Indeed, the strong responses Abel generates in each of these characters indicate their perception of something unyielding and incorruptible in him, something which throws into stark relief the humiliating spiritual compromises they have felt compelled to make. In his suffering Abel is both a sorry example and stinging rebuke to them, a warning and a goad, someone both to fear and reverence, for he reminds them of who and what they are—of what they find most contemptible in themselves and most holy. Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally have been spiritually corrupted to varying degrees by the white world, and to the extent that they have, they make Abel their scapegoat and regard him as an evil to be exorcised.

This scapegoating is most apparent in the case of Martinez who, Ben tells us, is "a cop and a bad one." [The critic adds in a footnote: "Most readers assume that Martinez is white, but given his name and the fact that a number of the novel's Indian characters have Spanish names and/or surnames, it seems more likely that he is at least part Indian or Chicano—if the latter, his situation would nonetheless parallel to a significant extent that of the urban Indians. Moreover, to regard Martinez as white is to reduce him to an overworked stereotype—the sadistic white cop—of the sort that Momaday, in his portrayal of every other white character in the novel, has scrupulously avoided."] He derives his sense of self from the power and authority vested in him by white society. That power, in his eyes, makes him superior to his "brothers" in the street by enabling him to identify with the oppressor and victimize them at will. He acts out his own version of the American Dream with every Indian he extorts, yet his violent response to Abel's slight resistance suggests that he has paid a price for the power he enjoys.

Martinez emerges, appropriately enough, from a dark alley as Ben and Abel are returning home from Henry's bar. Ben meekly complies with Martinez' order to hold out his hands, and he recalls that his hands "were shaking bad and I couldn't hold them still." He had just been paid and he gives Martinez "all I had left." Martinez then notices Abel:

Martinez told him to hold out his hands, and he did, slowly, like maybe he wasn't going to at first, with the palms up. I could see his hands in the light and they were open and almost steady. "Turn them over," Martinez said, and he was looking at them and they were almost steady.

Enraged, Martinez smashes Abel's hands with his nightstick, but Abel "didn't cry out or make a sound." From Benally's description, we can see that it is Abel's attitude rather than his actions that engenders Martinez' wrath. Martinez could not help but notice the contrast between Ben's involuntary shaking and Abel's relative steadiness, and this implied slight to his authority threatens him. His response to it indicates just how precarious his sense of self is, and the extreme viciousness of his later beating of Abel further reveals the self-hatred that is the price of the Anglo authority he covets.

By his mere presence Abel threatens the protective illusions so necessary to Martinez' emotional and psychological survival, and he poses the same threat to Tosamah and Benally. Martha Scott Trimble maintains [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] that "the suffering of the urban Indians is … rendered painful to watch because of their reluctance to admit to themselves that they suffer." They are so reluctant because they have been conditioned by the dominant white culture to regard their very suffering as evidence of their own inferiority. Their suffering is at least as productive of guilt as of rage and therefore they have devised what Trimble calls "strategies" to avoid acknowledging that suffering to themselves. By means of these strategies, they seek not only to adapt to white society but to retain while doing so a sense of themselves as free agents making intelligent decisions. They have chosen, in Ben's words, to "go along with it" not out of fear or because they have been seduced by the false promise of the white world, but because, they would believe, it makes sense. And as regards Tosamah and Benally, it is indeed painful to watch them disparage that which they most love and most need—their Indianness.

Tosamah, for instance, tries to better his situation by assuming a superior posture toward it—as is apparent in his use of language. In his first sermon, "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah tries to convince both himself and his congregation that he understands the white man by telling them how the white man conceives of and manipulates language. He says that "the white man deals in words, and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his own ground, you are as children…." Tosamah knows what he is talking about; his assertions are verified by Abel's experience in Los Angeles and Benally's explanation of Abel's language problems. But ironically, Tosamah uses language much as the white man does, and to much the same purpose. In fact, he uses it as Martinez uses fear and violence. Like Martinez, he has carved out a little fiefdom of sorts in the Los Angeles ghetto, and language is his means of controlling it.

By manipulating a variety of verbal styles in "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah keeps his parishioners off balance, dazzling as much as enlightening them. Through an ever-shifting combination of biblical oratory, street talk, exposition, and the simple, direct narrative style of the storyteller, Tosamah tries to relate to his audience on several levels simultaneously, to establish at once his oneness with and superiority to them. He wants to be perceived as a follow Indian sharing a similar culture and values, as a ghetto brother sharing the hardship of the streets, and as a teacher in both the shamanistic and professorial senses. The sermon is full of insight, but it is a masterpiece of verbal gymnastics as well.

Tosamah is perceptive enough to know that the agonizing conflict within himself also exists to varying degrees in the other urban Indians, and he exploits their insecurity and self-doubt to shore up his own tenuous conception of self. Indeed, his need continually to assert himself over the others is one indication of his sense of inadequacy. Like them, he both loves and fears his Indianness, and this entails a roughly similar ambivalence toward the white man. Tosamah sees through the white man to a significant extent and pointedly ridicules his blindness, but like Martinez he also feels a troubling yet insistent need to identify with his oppressor. This need underlies his use of language to intimidate and manipulate the other urban Indians. But he also feels the same need with regard to his heritage and his people. When Tosamah speaks so lovingly, so evocatively in his second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," of his journey to rediscover his Indian self, we cannot doubt his sincerity. This sermon is longer than his first, and it is free of the verbal gamesmanship that characterizes much of "The Gospel." Still, he needs to be a winner. He sees in his parishioners, and even more clearly in Abel, the fate of Indians in a white world, and he cannot accept such a density. If white society has consigned him, despite his education, intelligence, and talent, to a small, severely limited space, it has at least taught him how to control that space. Like Martinez, he has learned to exalt himself by undermining others. Oppressed, he becomes an oppressor victimizing, as Martinez does, the only people he can—his own.

As Martinez batters Abel's body, so Tosamah batters his spirit, and Momaday, through his use of narrative structure, stresses the parallel between them. The novel's second chapter, "The Priest of the Sun," in effect begins and ends with a sermon by Tosamah. These sermons frame a badly beaten, semiconscious Abel whose murder trial and life in Los Angeles pass in fragments before him. Ironically, Tosamah's second sermon, which recounts his journey to the land of his people, the Kiowa, to visit his grandmother's grave, reveals the path to salvation for Abel, tells how he might be made whole again. But Abel is not there to hear the sermon. Indeed, as we later learn from Benally, it was after Tosamah had earlier humiliated Abel that, in Ben's words, "He went downhill pretty fast …," decided "to get even with" Martinez, and was beaten half to death by him. Tosamah calls himself "Priest of the Sun," and he is sufficiently imaginative, sensitive, understanding, and articulate to be that. But he lives his day-to-day life as Coyote, the trickster who is both culture hero and buffoon. Like Coyote, Tosamah has the capacity to bring spiritual gifts to his people, to be a savior of sorts, but his actions are generally self-centered and done in ignorance—in Tosamah's case, a self-imposed ignorance—of their consequences for the world, his people, and himself. Tosamah is quick to take advantage of others to satisfy his own needs, but because he is himself a slave to those needs (emotional and psychological needs as opposed to Coyote's purely physical ones), he is at times the victim of his own tricks. Coyote is a master of self-deception and, as his own ambivalence toward and treatment of Abel indicates, so is John Big Bluff Tosamah.

Despite his awareness of the beauty and value of his native culture, despite his profound understanding of the nearly overwhelming spiritual problems modern America has created for his people, Tosamah is himself tormented by his Indianness. Abel, in his view, is the incarnation of that Indianness, and as such he fills Tosamah with shame and guilt and reverence. Tosamah, for all his insight into its workings, has been conditioned by the white world and by himself in response to that world to see with two pairs of eyes and the result, at least as regards Abel, is a mélange of contradictory impressions and impulses. For example, Ben remembers Tosamah's warning him about Abel: "He was going to get us all in trouble, Tosamah said. Tosamah sized him up right away…." Perceptive as he is, Tosamah can sense in Abel the unyielding integrity that will make him especially vulnerable in urban Los Angeles, that will keep him from "fitting in"; and that integrity implicitly confronts Tosamah with his own compromising and compromised self.

When Tosamah speaks of Abel's trial, he is both ironic and envious. True, the white society that is puzzled by Abel is the target of his irony, and he ostensibly mocks its view of Abel as "a real primitive sonuvabitch" and a "poor degenerate Indian"; but his own view of Abel, as his warning to Benally and his later psychological attack on Abel make clear, parallels to some extent that of the society he ridicules. Consider in this regard his impression of how Abel's testimony must have sounded to the court:

"'Well, you honors, it was this way, see? I cut me up a little snake meat out there in the sand.' Christ, man, that must have been our finest hour, better than Little Bighorn. That little nocount cat must have had the whole Jesus scheme right in the palm of his hand."

Tosamah's tone conveys both embarrassment and admiration here, but alone with Ben in the privacy of Ben's apartment he lets his admiration show. Of the court's verdict, he says:

"They put that cat away, man. They had to. It's part of the Jesus scheme. They, man. They put all of us renegades, us diehards, away sooner or later…. Listen here, Benally, one of these nights there's going to be a full red moon, a hunter's moon, and we're going to find us a wagon train full of women and children. Now you won't believe this, but I drink to that now and then."

If Ben "won't believe this" it is because the sentiments Tosamah here expresses hardly parallel his actions, and Tosamah knows it. He seeks to identify with Abel, referring to "us renegades, us diehards," and to the white man as "they," but merely to wish now and again for vengeance is an empty gesture. No doubt Tosamah's desire to avenge himself on those who have poisoned his spirit is sincere, but the courage, the spirit of defiance he recognizes in Abel, lies dormant within his own heart. Ben, as he does throughout the novel, undercuts Tosamah's pretentiousness, telling us that "He's always going on like that, Tosamah, talking crazy and showing off…."

Seeing Abel through white eyes, Tosamah finds him embarrassing. Though Tosamah ridicules Anglo cultural arrogance and the stereotypes that feed it, Abel—alcoholic, at times violent, and inarticulate—seems to him to lend credence to the stereotypes; thus Tosamah, educated and articulate as he is, feels misrepresented, degraded by association. This is the "trouble" of which he warns Benally. Seeing Abel through Indian eyes, Tosamah cannot help but admire him as a kind of modern-day warrior who refuses to give in meekly to the torment and tribulations of urban Indian life. But if Tosamah as an Indian is vicariously elevated by Abel's integrity, he is at the same time humbled by the lack of his own. Viewed from either perspective, then, white or Indian, Abel engenders in Tosamah self-contempt so strong that it is beyond enduring; he is anathema to the illusory conception of his own superiority that is Tosamah's primary means of emotional and psychological survival. Therefore, because of the guilt he feels, a guilt stemming from a profound sense of his own inadequacy, he projects upon Abel his own diminished sense of self.

Tosamah needs to tear Abel down and one evening, during a poker game at his place, the opportunity presents itself. In a seemingly expansive mood Tosamah, Ben tells us, was "going on about everything … and talking big." Ben, seeing that this talk bothers Abel, wants to leave, but Abel, already drunk and becoming more so, ignores him. Ben recalls,

I guess Tosamah knew what he was thinking too, because pretty soon he started in on him, not directly, you know, but he started talking about longhairs and the reservation and all. I kept wishing he would shut up, and I guess the others did, too … because right away they got quiet and just started looking down at their hands, you know—like they were trying to decide what to do. I knew that something bad was going to happen.

Abel, too drunk to seriously threaten Tosamah, lunges impotently toward him, and the others, to relieve their own discomfort, laugh at his futility.

Ben tells us that the laughter "seemed to take all the fight out of him. It was like he had to give up when they laughed; it was like all of a sudden he didn't care about anything anymore." Abel's response to the laughter indicates that, though perhaps not consciously aware of it, he attacked Tosamah not merely to avenge a personal insult but to avenge all the Indians at the table and back home, to avenge the honor of his people. Tosamah, who "doesn't come from the reservation" himself, has made the others ashamed of what they are, and when they try to dispel their shame by projecting it onto Abel, Abel's rage loses its foundation and he feels empty and alone. Ben remembers "that he was hurt by what had happened; he was hurt inside somehow, and pretty bad." Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun of the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission, has lost sight of the needs of his people in pursuit of his own isolated ends and in so doing, as his attack on Abel symbolically suggests, he has violated the very essence of his own Indianness. By shaming his people he has done the white man's work.

Unlike Tosamah, Benally is compassionate towards Abel; he is, from the time of their first meeting, instinctively protective of him. He trains Abel for his new job, introduces him around, and though he has very little himself, readily shares his home, his food, and his clothing. Most important of all, he shares with Abel, and Abel alone, his dearest possession—his native religion. It is Ben's honest, profound spirituality that sets him apart from the other urban Indians. As has often been noted, Ben is the one who has the vision during the peyote ceremony, and whereas Tosamah's understanding of his native culture seems at times largely intellectual, Ben "lives his religion on a level deeper than the intellect, the level of spirit and emotion" [Carole Oleson, "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review II, No. 1 (Spring 1973)]. Yet there are definite similarities between Ben and Tosamah as well, and to ignore them is to obscure considerably the scope and horror of the spiritual compromises white society, for its own material and psychological convenience, requires of Indians.

Sincere as his religious beliefs are and sensitive as he is, Benally has compromised himself almost as severely as Tosamah has, and this is most apparent from the contradictions in his narrative. Ben is trying earnestly to sell himself on the American Dream in a vain effort to convince himself that the life he feels compelled to live is in fact better and ultimately more fulfilling that the life he knew on the reservation. His pathetic monologue on the wonders of Los Angeles is a case in point:

It's good place to live…. Once you find your way around and get used to everything, you wonder how you ever got along out there where you came from. There's nothing there, you know, but the land, and the land is empty and dead. Everything is here, everything you could ever want. You never have to be alone.

But for all practical purposes Ben, until Abel comes, is alone. He has drinking buddies, true, but no one with whom he can share what is most important to him. Moreover, the "radios and cars and clothes and big houses" which, Ben says, "you'd be crazy not to want" and which are "so easy to have" have managed to elude him. He lives in a leaky, dilapidated slum tenement, gets his clothes second-hand, and is a cipher in the plant where he works. He willfully mistakes the racist ridicule of his co-workers for good-natured kidding and the pseudo-amiable hustle of the salespeople in the stores for friendliness. The extent and cost of his self-deception, however, are most painfully revealed in his comments about the land.

Ben's narrative is punctuated at several points by contrapuntal remembrances which rise unbidden in his mind, memories of growing up on the reservation, on "the land south of Wide Ruins where I come from," on the land he still loves. These recollections are full of precise, beautiful, and evocative details which belie his remark that "the land is empty and dead." The land he recalls is rich with vitality and meaning; it is the sacred center of all life and being. He remembers childhood on the land:

And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.

The vision of the land inherent in his memories is that which contemporary America requires him to abandon, and he tries to do just that. After all, "That's the only way you can live in a place like this [Los Angeles]. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all." The need to "go along with it" is a recurrent motif in Ben's narrative, and all that gives his life meaning must be subordinated to it:

If you come from the reservation, you don't talk about it much; I don't know why. I guess you figure that it won't do you much good, so you just forget about it. You think about it sometimes, you can't help it, but then you just try to put it out of your mind … it mixes you up sometimes….

But Abel does not let Ben "forget about it." He is to Ben what he is to Tosamah, the incarnation of all that is Indian within him, and Ben intuitively apprehends this. He remarks,

We were kind of alike, though, him and me. After a while he told me where he was from, and right away I knew we were going to be friends. We're related somehow, I think.

Abel's mere presence evokes his memories of home, and the first of Ben's "flashbacks" occurs as he recalls their first real conversation. Ben's history resembles Abel's in certain respects, and his memories [according to Lawrence J. Evers in his "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," Western American Literature XI, No. 4 (February 1977)] "reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa." What is especially sad about these memories is that they convey a sense of wholeness and security that contrasts sharply with the fragmented, fear-ridden, tenuous existence Ben now endures. He appears to regain a modicum of that sense with Abel, however; Ben knows that his most precious treasures are safe with him:

"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the signs, Beauty-way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things and told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.

Abel is wonderfully receptive, as Ben knew he would be, and "would want me to sing like that."

And Abel, Ben fears, is the only one who would. Just as Tosamah finds "longhairs" like Abel an embarrassment to him in the white world, so is Benally, within the context of that world, embarrassed by his own best impulses—and that world includes the other urban Indians. He tells of a night when he and Abel, along with the others, are drinking and having fun on a hill overlooking the city:

… I started to sing all by myself. The others were singing, too, but it was the wrong kind of thing, and I wanted to pray. I didn't want them to hear me, because they were having a good time, and I was ashamed, I guess. I kept down because I didn't want anybody but him to hear.

Only with Abel does Benally feel good about being an Indian; only with Abel can he free his spirit in song and prayer, and see past and future merge into an all-inclusive present. When Abel is in the hospital recovering from his beating, Ben, to comfort him, makes up a plan about going home, about "going out into the hills on horses and alone. It was going to be early in the morning, and we were going to see the sun coming up." There, they would "sing the old songs," sing "about the way it used to be, how there was nothing all around but the hills and the sunrise and the clouds." Ben at first did not take his plan seriously, but Abel "believed in it" and "I guess I started to believe in it, too." Dream and waking reality come together for Ben in Abel's presence, albeit briefly, and the deepest impulses of his spirit are vindicated in Abel's existence. In that respect Abel is truly a blessing for Benally. But they live in a world uncongenial to these impulses, a world contemptuous of vision and song, and in that world Abel also becomes an agonizing problem for Ben.

Ben's Indianness can find expression only through his religion and his friendship with Abel, and in a world hostile to Indians both, Ben feels, must be sheltered and protected. This is one reason why he tries to shepherd Abel as he does at the factory and why he takes him into his home. That Ben truly believes he is acting in Abel's best interest is undeniable, and in a very real sense he is. Abel sorely needs the kind of support Ben provides, and if Tosamah's attempt to isolate Abel is a denial of his own Indianness, Ben's generous inclusion of Abel in his own life is a wonderfully rich expression of his. Moreover, by telling Abel of the old traditions and teaching him the old songs, Ben not only provides him with necessary spiritual sustenance in a world unresponsive to spiritual need, but prepares him for his return to Walatowa to try again, this time more successfully, to find himself in the life of his people. But Ben's concern for Abel is motivated by fear as well as by compassion. Tosamah feared that Abel "was going to get us all in trouble," and so does Ben. He speaks to Abel of things Indian, for, as we have seen, his own spirit requires as much, but throughout his narrative he emphasizes repeatedly Abel's inability to "get along." He understands why Abel has difficulty adjusting and implies that he himself has faced similar obstacles, but he never questions the need to accommodate oneself to the white man's world, and that is why he eventually loses patience with Abel. Abel's problems, in Ben's view, go beyond those which confront every relocated Indian, severe as these problems may be. What Tosamah recognizes as Abel's unyielding integrity Benally sees as sheer obstinacy; or rather, the sustaining illusion he has constructed about the "good life" in Los Angeles demands that he see it as such. After all, Abel has a steady job, a place to live, drinking buddies—everything he needs, Ben would believe, to make it in urban America. Yet despite these advantages, he persists in being a trial to those who care for him.

Abel scares Ben. He scares him when he subtly defies Martinez in the alley and he scares him during Tosamah's harangue about "longhairs and the reservation." In both instances his actions threaten to undermine Ben's illusions by confronting him with the truth that life in urban America is incompatible with his identity as an Indian. Benally, as Carole Oleson has said, has whitened himself considerably by removing his religion from his daily life. He retains the songs and traditions within himself, and that is good, but he also compromises the old religion by confining it like a retarded child whom the family loves but of whom they are ashamed. Like Angela St. John, whose affair with Abel in Walatowa puts her in touch, if only temporarily, with her body's potential for joy and wonder, he turns off his own light, as it were, denies his own intuitive wisdom in a futile attempt to avoid emotional and psychological conflicts which might prove irreconcilable. And like Father Olguin, Benally also preaches the white man's religion—not in the form of Christianity, as Olguin does, but in its true aspects of materialism and conformity; like both Olguin and his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, he would convert the Indian to a new and alien faith for, like them, he needs converts to vindicate his own. Thus it is that when Abel ultimately proves "unregenerate," the usually mild Benally, possessed by anger but more by fear, loses patience:

He wouldn't let anybody help him, and I guess I got mad, too, and one day we had a fight … he was just sitting there and saying the worst thing he could think of, over and over. I didn't like to hear that kind of talk, you know; it made me kind of scared, and I told him to cut it out. I guess I was more scared than mad; anyway I had had about all I could take.

As with Martinez and Tosamah earlier, Ben knew "something bad was going to happen and … didn't want any part of it." At this point Abel goes to look for Martinez, but even after he is gone and Ben cools off, Ben nonetheless maintains that "It had to stop, you know; something had to happen."

Benally, then, like Tosamah, is a priest whose saving message, because he has divorced his religion from his everyday life, has an ironic as well as a revelatory dimension. It is especially ironic that despite his deeper, more sincere spirituality, Ben lacks Tosamah's awareness of the redemptive potential of the old ways of seeing and knowing. As the "Night Chanter," Ben, as we have seen, is essential to any hope Abel has for recovery, but Ben himself does not see the sharing of himself and his religion in this way. The road to recovery he consciously charts, as we have also seen, involves passively assimilating the values and accommodating oneself to the demands of white America, even at the cost of one's heritage and identity. Thus the role of "Night Chanter" assumes a second, and contrary, meaning. Though with the best intentions, Benally also, and quite unknowingly, chants the dark night of the soul, the tortured, fragmented, solipsistic state of being that Los Angeles comes to symbolize in the novel. Through the distorting lens of his own desperate need for some sense of meaning to his life, Ben sees an urban paradise, and it is this vision that he consciously advances as salvation.

Though it exists to differing degrees in each of them and, given their enormously diverse natures, manifests itself in various ways, Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally all share a single quality: self-contempt. Each is ashamed of being what he is, of being an Indian, and that is why Abel, when he is relocated in Los Angeles, becomes a kind of sacrifice to their fear and desperation. A "longhair" from the reservation, he is, among other things, a constant reminder to them of how they are perceived by the dominant culture and of that which has made them wretched. They have been made to feel, against all logic and common sense, that their suffering is somehow deserved because of what they are; thus each of them projects his own diminished sense of self upon Abel and responds to that self in his own way. Martinez tries to obliterate it through violence, Tosamah tries to disassociate himself from it, and Benally tries to remake it to fit the white world he inhabits. The issue is agonizingly complicated, however, because the very Indianness within them which they have been taught to hate is that which they intuitively love. Tosamah and Benally especially know in their very depths that fulfillment and wholeness lie in the realization and free expression of their Indian selves. Tosamah has made a long journey to the land of his people to rediscover his Indianness, and Ben hoards the old songs like treasure within his heart. Therefore, their self-contempt is further intensified by a profound sense of guilt stemming from their perceived inability to live their Indianness, by what they themselves see as a personal betrayal of their heritage and of themselves. However, though it saddens him, Momaday does not condemn the urban Indians for feeling as they do. Their self-hatred is in fact his most telling indictment of a modern America which relentlessly tries to compel its native peoples to barter dignity and self-respect for material, emotional, and psychological survival.

Michael W. Raymond (essay date Spring 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4621

SOURCE: "Tai-me, Christ, and the Machine: Affirmation through Mythic Pluralism in House Made of Dawn," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 61-71.

[Raymond is an author, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the role of technology, Christianity, and the Kiowa Tai-me in House Made of Dawn.]

Many critics interpret N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn as depicting disharmony, alienation, and the need for spiritual redemption in a squalid, hellish, temporal world. Martha Scott Trimble, for example, sees it [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] as a story of how differences in "language and culture tend through their own territorial imperatives to encompass one, sometimes to a point of isolation." Even those critics not advocating themes of alienation see House Made of Dawn as an insider's novel. To them, it portrays "the orderly continuum of interrelated events that constitute the Indian universe" and "warns native Americans that they may lose more than they gain if they assimilate into the American mix." With its alternative to Christianity and to a modern civilization based on secular, technological structures, House Made of Dawn's optimism has to be inappropriate for an outsider.

Neither of these approaches accounts for the full richness of Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Rather than denying the possibility of affirmation or suggesting that affirmation can come only through a monolithic cultural identity, House Made of Dawn focuses on the pluralism of ordinary contemporary life and the possibility of finding meaning in it. Depicting a pervasive cultural diversity in even remote, seemingly culturally isolated areas, the novel suggests that meaning in contemporary life comes when one finds his sense of place by recognizing and living within that large and diverse context.

At the end of House Made of Dawn, Abel is "running on the rise of the song." By seeing and going among the runners, Abel unmistakably associates himself with the dawn runners of eternity:

They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

Abel saves himself when he identifies with the dawn runners, sees them as a part of the whole, becomes a part of them, and feels significant. But Abel's path to the beginnings of salvation is not easy. Abel's story is one of a journey through and from placelessness. It is a sordid and seemingly chaotic journey through a self-conscious and reflective uninvolvement, an alienation from people and places, homelessness, a sense of the unreality of the world and of not belonging. Abel's choices and their outcome are neither simple nor clear-cut. It is more than just the matter of returning to the fulfilling pueblo from the nasty white man's world. Abel's tribulations involve all the complexities inherent in contemporary life. He is forced to face the army, the legal system, and the social service agencies of a society almost totally alien to him. He must deal with such personal tragedies as the deaths of his mother and brother and his own alcoholism. He is torn between personal pride and the necessity for survival in a hostile environment. Swirling around him are the complicated and often obscure promises of value systems inherent in at least three Native American cultures, in Christianity, and in modern technology.

Clearly this journey through placelessness is not restricted to the white man's army, city, or values. He experiences the twentieth-century sense of alienation before ever leaving the pueblo. At Walatowa, Abel's father was an outsider of an undetermined tribe. His family is considered foreign and strange. As an adolescent, Abel unexplainably strangles an eagle he captures during a ceremonial Eagle Watchers Society hunt. On his return to Walatowa in 1945, Abel is drunk and does not recognize his grandfather. At the rooster pull, he is awkward and uncomfortable. Unattuned to the old rhythm of the pueblo, he is unable to sing a creation song. In Los Angeles, Abel is no more attuned to the white man's world. The Kiowa priest Tosamah labels him a longhair, a primitive, a What's-His-Name, and a renegade. Abel himself acknowledges that his own body and mind had turned on him and had become his enemy.

Showing that Abel's problems transcend simplistic red-white, rural-urban, primitive-modern conflicts, that not all of his villains are external, and that his problems are not unique to him or to being a Native American, House Made of Dawn exposes more fully the complexities of Abel's story. Furthermore, it becomes apparent then that Abel's salvation is not wholly due to his return to the ceremonial life of the pueblo and that salvation does not occur in an Entirely Native American place as Marion Willard Hylton, Lawrence J. Evers, Alan R. Veile, and Joseph Trimmer suggest.

[In his 1977 In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction] Floyd C. Watkins finds House Made of Dawn "made almost incomprehensible by a profusion of elaborate cultural, mythical, and ritualistic detail." Indeed, Momaday includes in his narrative materials from the Jemez pueblo, the Pecos pueblo, the Navajo, the Kiowa, and Christian cultures. Set in Walatowa and Los Angeles, and narrated in multiple points of view that move freely back and forth in time, the novel provides a wide range of experiences within these many cultures. Frequently old and current rituals are alluded to or described in detail. Characters from all conditions of life and faith are a part of Abel's struggle. House Made of Dawn easily creates a sense of Abel's confusion, self-consciousness, and alienation.

As just three of the many cultural influences in House Made of Dawn, technology, Christianity, and Tai-me represent but a sample of the divergent and apparently conflicting values in the novel. Their clashing seems ubiquitous. At first glance, technology appears as the usual nightmarish movements of a machine. The novel seems structured on the archetypal conflict between the treadmill of the pursuit of the American Dream and the salvation of the natural order, between the urban industrialized life and the rural Native American sense of place, between Los Angeles and Walatowa. One has no difficulty recognizing the distinctions between the two places which represent these conflicting ideals. Los Angeles is a warehouse for A. A. Kaul Office Supply Company, a place much like a basement that is "cold and dreary, dimly illuminated by two 40-watt bulbs which were screwed into the side walls above the dais…. The walls were bare and gray and streaked with water. The only windows were small, rectangular openings near the ceiling at ground level; the panes were covered with a thick film of coal oil and dust, and spider webs clung to the frames or floated out like smoke across the room. The room was heavy and stale." As a location, Walatowa is the house made of dawn, a place where

the river lies in the valley of hills and fields. The north end of the valley is narrow, and the river runs down from the mountains through a canyon. The sun strikes the canyon floor only a few hours each day, and in winter the snow remains for a long time in the crevices of the walls. There is a town in the valley, and there are ruins of other towns in the canyon. In three directions from the town there are cultivated fields. Most of them lie to the west, across the river, on the slope of the plain. Now and then in winter, great angles of geese fly through the valley, and then the sky and the geese are the same color and the air is hard and damp and smoke rises from the houses of the town. The seasons lie hard upon the land. In summer the valley is hot, and birds come to the tamarack on the river. The feathers of blue and yellow birds are prized by the townsmen.

All of Abel's problems connect apparently to modern technology and its machines. His first departure from the pueblo is by a bus that jars, creaks, and lurches Abel into alienation and estrangement. At war, he dances on a leaf-covered, wooded hill around a black, massive enemy tank that "seemed apart from the land." After the war, Abel returns by bus to Walatowa drunk, a shame to his grandfather, and inarticulate in his own culture. In Los Angeles, Abel is a longhair "too damn dumb to be civilized." He refuses to adapt to the Jesus scheme, to the bright lights and cacophony, to the assembly-line job, and to the modern social system of prison, questionnaires, and brutal cops. All bring him down. Psychologically and physically, Abel is mangled and racked with pain. Significantly, as he attempts to revive himself from a near-fatal beating presumably administered by Martinez, his feeble efforts take place near a heavy wire-mesh fence, tractor trailers, and an industrial loading dock. As Abel tries to move, retches, and wants to die, he hears "sounds of the city at night, ticking on like a clock," foghorns, and ships. The nightmare of the modern technologically created Los Angeles apparently offers Abel only danger, chaos, and exposure.

Abel is not the only one who apparently suffers from the machine. In general, the Native Americans "do not hanker after progress" and consider the white man with his beasts of burden and trade as an enemy invader. With their changes, their unending succession of things, and their attempts to make everything bigger and better, the invaders dilute and multiply all into commonplaces. But the whites also suffer. Milly bears physical scars from barbed wire and psychological scars from her daughter's death in the hospital. Old Carlozini lives silently, alone, and afraid in a smelly, dark city apartment. The only time she comes out or speaks is to lament the death of her only friend, a black and white guinea pig. Even Angela St. John, wife of a successful doctor and a shopper in the affluent Westwood section of Los Angeles, needs to escape to Walatowa. Uncertain who she is and disgusted with her pregnant body, she seeks a vision of "some reality that she did not know, or even suspect."

Christianity is apparently as ineffectual as technology is threatening. The Jesus scheme is personified by Father Olguin and the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. Father Olguin is a prematurely old, blind-in-one-eye Catholic priest at the pueblo mission. A native of Mexico, he had dreams of becoming "an example in the town." However, he seems obtuse and insensitive. His services are routine and formulaic. His knowledge of his parishioners' culture seems memorized rather than understood. His attraction to Angela St. John is hardly spiritual. That Father Olguin finds comfort in Fray Nicolas's ethnocentric and misanthropic journal seems incongruous with his supposed purpose for being at the mission. His return to town after Angela's mocking rejection is symptomatic of his Christianity and its effect. Driving his car through the pueblo's narrow, dusty streets which are filled with his flock, Father Olguin bears down upon the people, leans on the car horn, and nearly hits them. While the Catholic priest is torn between revulsion, fear, and despair in his stopped car, the children laugh at him and mock him with "a shrill and incessant chant: 'Padre! Padre! Padre!'"

With the versatile abilities of an experienced confidence man, the Kiowa Reverend J. B. B. Tosamah does not seem much more effective than the pueblo priest. Pastor and Priest of the Sun, he personifies the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between white and Native American religious cultures. On Saturday, he preaches "The Gospel According to John"; on Sunday, "The Way to Rainy Mountain." Preaching in the cold, dreary basement of the A. A. Kaul Office Supply Company, Tosamah wavers between agony and arrogance, between the voice of a dog and the virtuosity of a scholar. In his three performances during the second section of House Made of Dawn, he goes back and forth among conviction, caricature, and callousness. He is dressed in black cleric clothes for the first sermon. Tosamah begins his traditional Christian sermon about the Word, God, and Truth with Latin and Genesis. Then he attacks the white man's assault on truth and ends with the paradoxical advice to listen and to learn from the white man. The peyote ceremony is as paradoxical. Ceremonially painted, Tosamah clinically describes the chemical ingredients and the psychological effects of peyote. Then he uses street slang to describe it and finally announces the Kiowa idea of peyote as "the vegetal representation of the sun." Sunday's sermon is the most personal and straightforward. Tosamah, however, cannot resist inserting into his story of his grandmother and his pilgrimage to Rainy Mountain an account of the Christians' destruction of the Kiowa deity.

Tosamah mocks both the longhairs and the Jesus scheme. His rule is "get yours." Very little seems sacred. Apparently, he does not believe in being reverent; becoming civilized is learning how to exploit the dominant culture or social system. He preaches assimilation into white society but has no respect for the white man. As a result, Tosamah's congregation is made up of Ben Benallys who consider the pastor-priest a bad drunk, a show-off, a madman, and an insensitive outsider.

Compared to the seemingly threatening technology and the apparently ineffectual Christianity, the Native American Tai-me would appear to be the only viable solution available to Abel and the twentieth century. In fact, because House Made of Dawn contains innumerable references to the sun as well as Tosamah's explicit commentaries, it would seem that Tai-me, the sun dance god, would be the most accessible, comprehensible, and affirmative myth in the novel. Tosamah's sincerely reverent account of his grandmother's memories of Tai-me is a history of the Kiowa sun dance culture. This most sacred and most powerful fetish represented the transformation of the Kiowa culture from a nation of slaves struggling for survival to one of divinity with the sun. Tai-me provided a sense of destiny, the attributes of courage and pride, and the fulfillment of an old prophecy. It led to the golden age of a "lordly and dangerous society of fighters and thieves, hunters and priests of the sun."

The attributes and effects ascribed to Tai-me seem congruent with every description of the sun in House Made of Dawn. From the novel's title to Tosamah's sermons, from the dawn running to the dance rituals, from Francisco's accounts of the organic calendar to the light images associated with Angela St. John, the sun seems to be a symbol of life, growth, and knowledge. The sun seems to be the unifying symbol of affirmation. The inclination is to link these sun references unilaterally to Tai-me. However, this would simplify inappropriately intricate but certainly more satisfying systems of cultural complexity in House Made of Dawn. This inclination is much like those critics who contribute to the reductive approaches to House Made of Dawn as just an ethnic novel in which only the vanishing breed can win or—as is more often the case—no one can win. House Made of Dawn does not sustain or deserve a reduction of itself into simplistic conflicts. The novel eschews dire warnings of ethnic apocalypse or strident calls for ethnic isolationism by emphasizing the complexities inherent in interpreting Tai-me and, therefore, in contemporary culture. One cannot eliminate or isolate any single myth or culture when it is inextricably mixed in with a score of other myths or cultures. One cannot reduce the struggles of contemporary life into an "us vs. them" conflict when one has difficulty discriminating between "us" and "them."

Not all references to the sun are in a Native American context. Furthermore, those references that are in such a context certainly do not allude only to the Kiowa sun dance fetish Tai-me. The title House Made of Dawn comes from Ben Benally's Navajo Night Chant; Francisco's dawn running emanates from the pueblo culture; the sun as a center for the organic calendar represents an archetype for even the whites in Los Angeles. Another reason for eschewing any simplified cultural conflict is that even those rituals, legends, and ceremonies directly connected to Tai-me are clearly depicted as neither pure Kiowa nor pure Native American. Tosamah's sermon on the way to Rainy Mountain indicates the influence of several cultures on Tai-me. As he indicates, the chief symbol of the Kiowa worship was given to the migrating tribe by the Crows in the late seventeenth century. Using an old hide rather than a buffalo, the last sun dance was in 1887. In 1890, the U. S. Cavalry stopped an attempted revival of the ceremony. By the time of the novel, the vestiges of Tai-me are entirely oral, relayed by Christian Kiowas, and in languages lost to the newer generations. Just from the evidence presented in House Made of Dawn, Tai-me was not indigenous to the Kiowa culture and was not left unchanged by the peoples and forces of history. Also, one should be careful to note that the blending with Tai-me was not depicted entirely as destructive dilution. The Crows provided the migrating hunters with a sense of destiny. Although a Christian in later years, Tosamah's grandmother was able to transmit with ancient awe and holy regard the sacredness of this memory to her grandson.

The blending of cultural materials indicated in the presentation of Tai-me is characteristic of how cultures are presented throughout House Made of Dawn. Momaday repeatedly emphasizes the blending of the pueblo, Kiowa, Navajo, Christian, and technological cultures and indicates the mixed blessings resulting from the blending. For example, the festival of Santiago and the feast for Porcingula dominate the "Longhair" section. The "halting talk of old fellowship" is in Tanoan, Athapascan, English, and Spanish. The participating characters are the Catholic Father Olguin, the sacristan and holy medicine man Francisco, the albino witch Juan Teyes Fragua, and the recently returned army veteran Abel. The observers include the shy Navajo children, the Jemez pueblo people, the Bahkyush descendants, and the white doctor's wife Angela St. John. The myth behind the festival is a curious adaptation of St. James' bringing Christianity to Spain into Santiago's founding of the pueblo culture. The rooster-pull or gallo is the featured event. As Watkins and Trimmer indicate, the gallo observed in House Made of Dawn is a more profane ceremony than the original, with the emphasis on the white albino-red Abel conflict and the presence of the uncomprehending Angela St. John. The feast for Porcingula mingles the worship of Catholic Virgin Mary with the adoration of the Bahkyush patroness; a procession following mass and communion leads to the dance with the Pecos masks of the bull and the horse. In the dance before the kiva, Francisco notes "the bull was a sad and unlikely thing, a crude and makeshift totem of revelry and delight … no holiness to it…." However, regardless of the sense that the hold had been relaxed upon the ancient ways, both ceremonies remain sacred. The townswomen finish the gallo by throwing water in sacrifice on the rooster remains; the Porcingula procession leaves as the cacique prays and sprinkles ceremonial meal on the Pecos horse.

In "The Priest of the Sun" section, the peyote ceremony conducted by Tosamah in the dreary Los Angeles basement is another example of cultural blending. While the ceremony follows in detail the traditional Kiowa peyote rite, the prayers of four participants reflect values besides those of the Kiowa. Cristobal Cruz ends his prayer with "in Jesus' name. Amen"; Napoleon Kills-in-the-Timber prays to the Great Spirit for help in being "frens with white mans" [sic]; Ben Benally sees a Navajo house made of dawn. The ceremony itself ends as brassy jukebox music and street sounds filter into the basement and as Tosamah strides into the street blasting his eagle-bone whistle to signify "that something holy was going on in the universe."

In "The Night Chanter" section Ben Benally recalls the old Navajo ways of the Beautyway and Night Chant, of the squaw dance, and of the Bear and the Snake story. His recollections come as he goes into the hills above Los Angeles to forget about everything. As with the ceremonies in Walatowa and in the supply company basement, Benally's ceremonies have been changed. The chants are shortened; the prayers are done quietly because Ben is ashamed. Once for the Navajo a three-day ceremony of healing, the squaw dance is now primarily a social event. Even the Bear and the Snake story—one that moves from fear to affirmation—is not initiated by Ben. The Navajo legend is Ben's response to Angela's own story in the hospital of a bear and a maiden. Each of these Navajo customs reflects Ben's empathy with Los Angeles and what it stands for. Ben (and his practice of the Navajo ways) exhibits emotional and behavioral participation in a culture of which he is not a full member. His involvement with Milly, his acquiescence to the "bright and clean" city lifestyle, and his efforts to convert Abel indicate how Ben's practice of his native ways has been affected by the cultural forces around him.

Abel's situation among such varied cultural forces as Taime, Christianity, and technology is difficult to pin down specifically. Each affects him but how, to what degree, and to what result are uncertain. However, what seems certain is that Abel is not the only character affected by confusion, self-consciousness, and alienation. From the sketches of the individual and collective influences of just these three cultural forces, one notes that everyone experiences some sense of placelessness. Francisco and Milly belong to and identify with their particular place as natives, but each suffers: Francisco through the changes to the pueblo and the particular absence of Abel; Milly through the separation from her father, the desertion of her husband, and the death of her daughter. Angela St. John and Ben Benally participate in other cultures, but they are not full members. She reacts physically and emotionally to the pueblo activities and rituals and senses the spiritual vision but finds it all strange and incomprehensible. Although Ben repeatedly says he is devoted to the city, there is little doubt that he envies Abel's return home. The practice of Father Olguin's and Tosamah's professed callings as priests reveals two men who engage in the activities of two cultures but remain dispassionate observers.

What also seems certain is that the others who suffer from the same sort of placelessness as Abel do not suffer as much as Abel. They seem to have either overcome the sense of not belonging or at least come to grips with it. To a degree, Angela, Milly, and Father Olguin come to their sense of place in the novel. Francisco, Ben, and Tosamah are there already. A character's acceptance of or adjustment to the many cultures around him marks that character's discovery of his sense of place. Native American or white, each seems to balance the various demands, promises, and perspectives inherent in the complexities of so many cultures. The sense of place does not come as one culture overcomes another; over and over again it is shown that conquerors are conquered by "a long outwaiting." Generally, the cultures are not depicted as absolutely hostile, absolutely evil, or absolutely good. They are parts of a larger context.

As House Made of Dawn moves to its conclusion with Abel symbolically running in the culture apparently more appropriate for him, three scenes signify Abel's coming to his sense of place and show how he accomplished it. These three concluding scenes also show in the background other characters achieving a similar blending of cultures.

The first scene involves the aftermath of Abel's brutal beating in Los Angeles by the policeman Martinez, which precipitates Abel's return to Walatowa. Benally finds Abel almost dead, "all broken and torn and covered with blood" in the darkened hallway. But Abel is saved by the ambulance, the hospital, and Angela St. John. The city's technology heals his body, and the white woman's stories about a young brave born of a bear and a maiden allow him to turn away and to return home.

The second is Father Olguin's next-to-last appearance in the novel at the beginning of "The Dawn Runner." The Catholic priest sits passively in his rectory. The long passage describes him as having "grown calm with duty and design" with the "hectic fire of his spirit" burned low. Composed and at peace,

he had come to terms with the town, and that, after all, had been his aim. To be sure, there was the matter of some old and final cleavage, of certain exclusion, the whole and subtle politics of estrangement, but that was easily put aside…. The fair price of his safe and sacred solitude…. He had done well by the town, after all. He had set an example of piety….

The scene ends with an allusion to Fray Nicolas' journal and Father Olguin's mild spiritual exercise for faith and humility.

The third takes place following the death of Francisco. After seven days remembering the rituals, the hunting, his marriage, his teaching, and his running, Abel's grandfather dies. Abel prepares the body by using some traditional ceremonies and disregarding others. Not calling in the singers, he wets and winds the hair; dresses and wraps the body; sprinkles meal and places corn, feathers, and pollen beside him. Abel then takes the body to Father Olguin at the mission. As the generator kicks on to power the lights, the bewildered priest comes to the door. Abel leaves the body and goes to run and to sing in the house made of dawn.

In these three concluding scenes, seemingly disparate cultures are seen together. In each scene, someone has arrived at some sense of place. The Navajo Ben Benally, the white Angela St. John, and the city hospital's technology restore Abel's body and spirit. Ben and Angela demonstrate through their instinctive reliance on technology, their invocation of Native American legend, and their apparently effortless return to daily life an unconscious sense of place that Abel must leave Los Angeles to find. Father Olguin—with his Christianity and his technology—senses the rhythm of life in the pueblo and accepts "a holiness more intrinsic than any he could ever have imagined." Finally, Abel, having employed Jemez and Catholic customs for burial, runs in a pueblo tradition, sings a Navajo prayer, and affirms himself within a community larger than one culture.

Thus, Momaday asserts that everyone has tenure in the land. Like Abel, everyone can come to accept cultural diversity and learn the necessity of finding one's place within the larger context. Using seemingly isolated or conflicting cultures, such as those surrounding Tai-me, Christ, and the machine, Momaday shows characters such as Abel, Ben Benally, Angela St. John, J. B. B. Tosamah, and Father Olguin finding a sense of place or significance. Originating from a primary culture that seems insufficient for dealing with complex, contemporary life, each character settles into his respective world by accepting the existence of a basic pluralism in cultures.

While not denying the efficacy or integrity of individual myths and cultures, House Made of Dawn continually and artistically suggests that myths or the people that make up a pluralistic society are rarely independent, insular units. By advocating compatibility in cultural pluralism and the authenticity of individual identity within that pluralism, Momaday emphasizes the potential for the individual to find a sense of place in contemporary life.

Linda Hogan (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4605

SOURCE: "Who Puts Together," in Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, Modern Language Association of America, 1983, pp. 169-77.

[Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist. In the following essay, she relates Momaday's focus on healing and his incorporation of Native American chants in House Made of Dawn.]

N. Scott Momaday, in his novel House Made of Dawn, draws on the American Indian oral tradition in which words function as part of the poetic processes of creation, transformation, and restoration. Much of the material in the novel derives from the Navajo Night Chant ceremony and its oral use of poetic language as a healing power. The author, like the oral poet/singer, is "he who puts together" a disconnected life through a step-by-step process of visualization. This visualization, this seeing, enables both the reader and Abel, the main character, to understand the dynamic interrelatedness in which all things exist and which heals. By combining the form of the Navajo healing ceremony with Abel's experience, Momaday creates harmony out of alienation and chaos, linking the world into one fluid working system.

Momaday is able to achieve this harmony because of his awareness of the language and poesis used in Navajo Chantway practice. The Night Chant is a complex ceremony for healing patients who are out of balance with the world. Its purpose is to cure blindness, paralysis, deafness, and mental disorders by restoring the patient to a balance with the universe, through symbolic actions and through language in the form of song or prayer. Words used to paint images and symbols in the minds of participants evoke visual and imaginative responses from and in the hearer. By multiplying, through speech, the number of visual images in the mind of the hearer, the ceremony builds momentum. Language takes on the power of generation. Various forms of verbal repetition intensify the rhythm, and as description and rhythm build, words become a form of internal energy for the listener.

With knowledge of how language and creative visualization work, a capable singer or writer is able to intensify and channel this energy that derives from words. Sound, rhythm, imagery, and symbolic action all combine so that the language builds and releases, creating stability and equilibrium. [In his 1974 Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature] John Bierhorst regards this buildup and release of tension as a form of charged energy: words are positively and negatively charged and resemble electricity. The plus and minus charges allow a transmission of force: "Their ceremonial method is twofold; on one hand the ritual repulses 'evil,' on the other it attracts 'holiness.' Accordingly, each of its separate rites may be categorized as either repulsive or attractive, as either purgative or additory."

This verbal and symbolic accumulation and exorcism have a parallel effect on the body. The mind produces sympathetic responses within the organism. In The Seamless Web, Stanley Burnshaw discusses the physiological effects of language. He claims that "the sources of an artist's vision involve aspects of biological responses and processes of accumulation and release to which no investigation has yet found access." Although Burnshaw is concerned more with the creative act as a release, he finds that the biological organism responds to the suggestion of words and images. In this way, healing can occur as a result of the proper use of language—language as a vehicle for vision, as a means of imagination.

Momaday makes use of accumulation and release in various sections of House Made of Dawn. Before Abel can be returned to balance, he is undone in many ways by language. In the exorcistic sections, Abel is broken down by language, his own as well as that of others. We see him taken apart by the words of those who rely on the destructive rather than on the creative capabilities of language: "Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language."

The word stands for what it signifies. It has both the power of creation and the power of destruction. For those who do not understand this potential of language, words lack power. Words degraded and overused are capable of destruction. Using language without knowledge of its functions diminishes its creative power. And there is a difference between the understanding that Navajos and other Indian people have of language and the way in which white people use language:

The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted…. He has diluted and multiplied the word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—for the Word itself—as an instrument of creation has nearly diminished to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word.

Abel's muteness is a form of paralysis. He is unable to put the past together in his mind, to make use of his own language to make himself whole:

He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the longue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing…. Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language—even the commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of the custom still—but inarticulate.

Abel's inability to articulate, to form a song or prayer, keeps him from achieving wholeness. Without language, his own or that of others, he is unable to visualize. Remembering imprisonment, he realizes the need for imaginative vision and knows that his own lack of seeing narrows the world even more than did the walls of his cell: "After a while he could not imagine anything beyond the walls except the yard outside, the lavatory, and the dining hall—or even the walls really." But after he gains a full awareness of language, vision opens up to him. In "The Priest of the Sun" section, Abel recalls several incidents that reveal the importance of language. He remembers Tosamah's sermon on the Word, Benally's recitation of the Night Chant, Francisco's chanting and praying, and Olguin's discussion of "acts of the imagination" and legal terminology. After this awareness, this memory of language, occurs, Abel's vision takes place. It descends on him like a miracle of health. He sees the runners, "the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them…." And Abel, at this turning point where memories begin to piece together, sees the division and loss of balance that have affected him:

Now, here, the world was open at his back. He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void.

Imagination and vision follow language. Description allows seeing. The potential of language to heal and restore lies in its ability to open the mind and to make the world visible, uniting all things into wholeness just as the runners are whole and indispensable.

That Abel is divided is obvious. He is a person incapable of speech, one who "could not put together in his mind," or imagine. Momaday, in his essay "The Man Made of Words," addresses this contemporary division of self from the world and the problem of how the inability to visualize, to imagine, keeps us from harmony with the rest of creation:

We have become disoriented, I believe; we have suffered a kind of psychic dislocation of ourselves in time and space…. I doubt that any of us knows where he is in relation to the stars and to the solstices. Our sense of the natural order has become dull and unreliable. Like the wilderness itself, our sphere of instinct has diminished in proportion as we have failed to imagine truly what it is.

The imaginative experience, inspired by the images and symbols of language, becomes a form of salvation. Just as language takes apart and distances, it can also put together. When this crisis of imagination is healed, restoration takes place. Those who understand the potential of words as accumulated energy, as visualization of the physical, can find balance and wholeness. Words used properly and in context, whether in written prose or in the oral form of prayer and incantation, return us to ourselves and to our place in the world. They unify the inner and outer. In this respect, for Abel and for the reader, House Made of Dawn works much like the Night Chant. It focuses the imagination, creates a one-pointedness of mind through concrete images. It breaks down and then builds momentum, using the two forces to restore balance.

Language as accumulation is a means of intensifying the power of words. This accumulation combined with the exorcistic, or release, sections of the book takes Abel on a journey of healing, a return to the sacred and to the traditional. When words take on these powers, one is careful with them, careful not to dilute and diminish their meanings as white people have done. Each word needs to carry weight, and this is central to Momaday's understanding of language as a distillation where meaning is intensified by careful use of words. When Tosamah speaks of his grandmother, he shows an understanding of both the healing function of condensed language and the importance of the imaginative journey, guided by words:

She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal. It was a timeless, timeless thing…. You see, for her words were medicine; they were magic and invisible…. And she never threw words away.

Tosamah is able through language to reach some "strange potential of Himself." The ability to say, in poetic form, that which is unspeakable, to create and hold an image in the mind, gives language its power. What is spoken is seen. Words draw images and symbols out of the mind. They take hold of the moment and make it eternal. Tosamah, who in a sense speaks for Momaday, reaches that "strange potential" by experiencing the language he has spoken. He speaks as an inspired poet. As mythically the word created the earth, Tosamah's language creates vision. He is inspired by the language that speaks through him and by its capacity to recover, mentally, the world from which people have become divided. As Octavio Paz says of the poet, [in Alternating Current], "Through the word we may regain the lost kingdom and recover powers we possessed in the far-distant past. These powers are not ours. The man inspired, the man who really speaks, does not say anything personal; language speaks through his mouth."

Language, speaking through Tosamah, restores him to unity with the world. After his speech, he steps back from the lectern, and "In his mind the earth was spinning and the stars rattled around in the heavens. The sun shone, and the moon." He recognizes that a single star is enough to fill the mind and that the value of language lies in its ability to operate on the mind.

Abel also realizes his potential through language, through Benally's recitation of the Night Chant and through Francisco's memories that are "whole." As in the Night Chant, order is achieved through an imaginative journey: Benally takes Abel through this step-by-step process of visualization, singing parts of the Night Chant ceremony. Understanding the power words hold and the sacred action they contain, he sings quietly:

       Restore my feet for me;
       Restore my legs for me,
       Restore my body for me,
       Restore my mind for me,
       Restore my voice for me.

This excerpt from the Night Chant allows the hearer to visualize each part of the body being healed, from the feet up to the voice. The purpose of describing health is to obtain health. This purpose is furthered by taking the patient on an imaginative journey and returning him, restored to himself. Sam Gill, talking about the nature of Navajo ceremonials [in his "Prayer as Person," History of Religions 17, No. 2 (1977)], points out that "The semantic structure of the prayer is identical to the effect the prayer seeks, the restoration of health." Benally continues, and his singing returns Abel home to his grandfather, Francisco:

       Happily I go forth.
       My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
       No longer sore, may I walk.
       Impervious to pain, may I walk.
       With lively feelings, may I walk.
       As it used to be long ago, may I walk.
       Happily may I walk.

Francisco's dying memories continue the journey, completing the ceremony for Abel. The memories are similar to those Abel experiences in the first section of the book, and they symbolically connect the two men, using identification, which is also an important function of the language in the Night Chant, where the patient and singer identify with the holy ones. Because "the voice of his memory was whole and clear and growing like the dawn," Francisco's words finally restore Abel. Abel, running, at the end of the book, is finally able to sing, and the words he hears are from the Night Chant: "House made of pollen, house made of dawn."

Momaday's use of the journey derives from oral tradition, in which the journey is used as a symbolic act that takes the hearer out of his or her body. The journey is an "act of the imagination" fired by language. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday defines the psychic potential of the mental, or symbolic, journey as a miracle of imagination made up of mythology and legend, an idea in itself:

It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural.

He says that the imaginative recalling of the journey reveals the way in which "these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the mind." It is this interfusion with which we are concerned. The interfusion of things in the mind acts as a catalyst, merging myth, history, and personal experience into one shape, to reassemble the divisions of the self.

Healers and singers from other nations or tribes are also familiar with this traditional use of language as journey, as interfusion. The Mazatec Indians in Mexico use a similar oral technique to cure disease. [Henry Munn notes in his "The Mushrooms of Language," an essay appearing in Michael Harner's 1973 Hallucinogens and Shamanism that a] medicine woman says of the patient, "Let us go searching for the tracks of her feet to encounter the sickness that she is suffering from." And the healer goes, imaginatively, out of her own body:

She is going on a journey, for there is distanciation and going there, somewhere without her even moving from the spot where she sits and speaks … and the pulsation of her being like the rhythm of walking.

The healer follows the footprints of the patient, looking for clues to the cause of disease in order to return the patient to balance.

Just as the symbolic journey in the Night Chant and the journey in House Made of Dawn have their physiological components, so the Mazatec healing ritual [according to Munn] has an organic, biological parallel: "it is as if the system were projected before one into a vision of the heart, the liver, lungs, genitals and stomach." Through seeing, through visualizing, the words interact with the nervous system. In traditional oral literature as well as in House Made of Dawn, speaking is healing.

Momaday's imaginative, visual creation and fusion of myth and history with the present returns us to the idea of positively and negatively charged language. For what takes place within the mind, acted on by language, also takes place within the body. Language conceived as accumulation and release is language that can pass the reader/hearer across a threshold into equilibrium. Burnshaw, in a discussion of creativity, focuses on the transformational qualities of words used in this capacity:

… a creative artist inhales the surrounding world and exhales it. Whatever is taken in is given back in altered condition or transformed into matter, action, feeling, thought. And in the cases of creative persons, an additional exhalation: in the form of words or sounds or shapes capable of acting upon others with the force of an object alive in their surrounding worlds.

Such an object arises out of characteristic cycles of accumulation and release….

A singer, writer, or healer is able to unite the internal with the external. This unity of word with the force of an object is the theoretical framework for House Made of Dawn. The structure of the book replicate the progression of the Night Chant, making use of mythology, history, symbolism, and creation to stimulate response in the reader. Just as the Night Chant ceremony seeks to duplicate the universe in the mind of the hearer, Momaday creates a model of the universe in the book. Each section contains repetitions of images and symbols of the universe that are fragmented and need to be united again into one dynamic system.

These repetitions are important in channeling the energy of language. In Navajo Chantway practice, according to Gladys Reichard, the more often something is repeated, the more power it has to concentrate the mind and focus attention. Through this concentration, through a balance brought about by accumulation and release, the union of time, space, and object takes place within the imagination. The words of prose or poetry function like an opening of the self into the universe and the reciprocal funneling of the universe into the self.

This repetition and the replication of the universe assist seeing, or vision. [According to Elizabeth Sewell in her 1971 The Orphic Voice, language] in this poetic function, which resembles the oral traditions, "provides a double system of images and forms for the body and mind to work with in seeking to understand one system by another." It is as though two universes, or systems, one internal and the other external, act simultaneously upon the hearer and fuse together. Inner and outer merge and become the same. Words are linked with the objects they designate. Past and present merge. This comes about through the circular organization of the book, the expansion and contraction and the order that give the book its sense of poetic presence and immediacy.

These methods are characteristic of oral tradition, in which the word and the object are equal and in which all things are united and in flux. The distinctions between inner and outer break down. Momaday, making use of these oral techniques in his poetic language, returns Abel, along with the reader, to an earlier time "before an abyss had opened between things and their names" [Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973].

This return gives to words a new substance and power not unlike that of oral ritual. The life of the word and the fusion of word and object, by means of the visual imagination, return the participant or reader to an original source that is mythic, where something spoken stands for what is spoken about and there is [according to Momaday in his "Man Made of Words"] "no difference between the telling and that which is told." It is a form of dynamic equilibrium in which all things are assembled into wholeness and integrated and in which persons can "name and assimilate."

Speaking or hearing becomes a form of action. Reichard comments [in her 1944 Prayer: The Compulsive Word], "The Navajo believe, in common with many American Indians, that thought is the same or has the same potentiality as word. To thought and words they add deed, so that there is no use trying to differentiate." Words are actions that have the ability to align and heal. This concept is the basis for the Night Chant, in which the patient identifies with the gods, goes on a symbolic journey, and is made holy. By the patient's visualizing the action, the action takes place and the patient is restored. [According to Gill, the] ceremony consists of "words the utterance of which is actually the doing of an action." Abel's ability to see, to concentrate his being, at the end of the book is the result of language.

Words, therefore, are a materialization of consciousness. And deeds are the manifestation of words. By evoking in the hearer or reader a one-pointedness of mind, the poem, song, or prayer becomes more than just expression. It is a form of divine utterance that moves us to action, that is action itself. It is an extension of the internal into the external.

Language used in this way becomes a form of dynamic energy, able to generate and regenerate. Attention, focused by language, has the power to give existence to something imagined. Words, sung or written, cast off their ordinary use and become charged with a luminous new energy. They accumulate the power to return us to a unity of word and being, linking the internal with the external. As in the Orphic tradition, language creates the world and lets the world return through the song or the word.

The song or word in oral tradition is responsible for all things, all actions. According to Navajo accounts, the universe was created by the word. According to Reichard, the Navajo say that in prehuman times the original state of the universe was one word. Tosamah, a Kiowa, also acknowledges this creative ability of the word and understands that through this creation (which was the word) all things begin and are ordered:

Do you see? There, far off in the darkness, something happened. Do you see? Far, far away, in the nothingness something happened. There was a voice, a sound, a word, and everything began.

Language perceived as creation and as a unity of word and being has the power to heal. Combining the oral elements of word energy created by accumulation and release, imaginative journey and visualization, Momaday restores Abel to his place within the equilibrium of the universe. Momaday assumes the traditional role of speaker as healer by permitting Abel and the reader to see the order of the universe. He speaks as a poet, combining the verbal and the visual. Language restores the poet to this role as the primordial speaker "whose power of language undergirds the word, thus to provide man with a dwelling place." [Gerald L. Bruns, Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language: A Critical and Historical Study, 1974]. When the world is engaged and all things are seen and understood as one great working system, balance and healing take place, and this is beyond language.

The ability of the word to control visualization and therefore unite all things is the concept behind House Made of Dawn and the Navajo Night Chant. [According to Sam Gill, in his "The Trees Stood Rooted," Parabola 2, No. 2 (1977) the] speaker understands that the "Magic of the Word lies in the fact that it is capable through image and symbol of placing the speaker in communion with his own language and with the entire world." The healing that takes place beyond language comes of the resonance, the after-image of speech in the imagination. The visual energy remains, having been sparked by words. In literature, whether oral or written, it is that which allows us to "put together" in the mind. Restoration follows language and results from the figurative aspects of words and their ability to open out the imagination and thereby affect the physiological. As energy, language contains the potential to restore us to a unity with earth and the rest of the universe. Accumulation, repetition, and resonance all unite to tie us, seamlessly, to the world.

Matthias Schubnell (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13433

SOURCE: "The Crisis of Identity: House Made of Dawn," in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 101-39.

[In the following excerpt, Schubnell discusses Abel's search for belonging and identity in House Made of Dawn.]

My reading of House Made of Dawn focuses on the novel's thematic center: the problem of identity. First I deal with Abel's early years of harmony and the gradual emergence of conflicts which lead to his departure from the community. Next I examine Abel's attempts to resolve his confusion after his return from a war which has further undermined his sense of belonging. In fact, Abel has become a man between two cultures, unable to cope with either. In the last section of this reading I argue that Abel's eventual return to his native culture takes the course of a rite of passage. The interpretation is based on a close analysis of the novel's symbolism against the background of Mircea Eliade's studies of initiation ceremonies and religious patterns.

By way of introduction to the tragic effects of identity conflicts among American Indians as Momaday witnessed them at Jemez, it may be best to quote from one of his letters. I have deleted the names of the victims to protect their privacy and that of their families:

Abel is a composite of the boys I knew at Jemez. I wanted to say something about them. An appalling number of them are dead; they died young, and they died violent deaths. One of them was drunk and run over. Another was drunk and froze to death. (He was the best runner I ever knew). One man was murdered, butchered by a kinsman under a telegraph pole just east of San Ysidro. And yet another committed suicide. A good many who have survived this long are living under the Relocation Program in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, etc. They're a sad lot of people.

This statement spells out the disastrous violence, suffering, and despair which frequently accompanies cultural change. While Abel's conflicts are aggravated by a particularly unsettling historical period, his difficulties in reconciling his tribal origin with the presence of a modern world are a latent and potentially disruptive problem for every generation of American Indians.

Abel is struggling to find an identity within his own tribe long before he comes into direct contact with the culture of modern America. From a developmental point of view his experience is universal: it is the struggle of a young man to establish a stable position in his community. From a historical perspective his crisis reflects a crisis of his culture which denies its young tribal members accommodation to changing conditions.

Abel's problem grows out of a generation conflict within a tribal community in which the ancient traditions tend to lose their meanings for young Indians in their confrontation with the cultural tradition of modern America. The old generation of traditionalists tends to exert pressure on young tribal members in order to assure the perpetuation of the old ways. This can lead to a conflict between communal obligations and the search for a new Indian identity which must include the benefits of modern society.

Abel cannot simply adopt the traditional customs of his tribe as would have been natural in a community unaffected by the encroachment of an alien culture. He turns his back on the Indian world and enters modern America. Here, under the influence of an unsympathetic environment, Abel's conflict is aggravated. He shows all the symptoms of identity confusion: estrangement from both the tribal and the Anglo-American cultures, sexual and emotional disturbance in his personal relationships, and an inability to channel his aggression appropriately.

His return to the native community suggests that Indian cultures are capable of overcoming such crises, not by isolating themselves but through an adherence to basic traditional values and by the selective acceptance of new elements from other cultures. This strategy, which has been a strength of American Indian societies throughout the period of contact with other cultural groups, must be continued. In giving an account of the developmental crisis in the protagonist's life history Momaday makes a statement about Indian life in a period of increasing cultural and economic pressures. House Made of Dawn, then, is a novel about an individual and a communal search for identity.

The Indian community in which Abel grows up belongs to the Rio Grande Pueblo villages in New Mexico. Momaday opens the first chapter with the place name "Walatowa, Canyon de San Diego." Walatowa literally means "the people in the canyon." It is the native name of Jemez. As a result of their geographical isolation and their cultural conservatism the Rio Grande Pueblos have succeeded in keeping their languages, religions, and traditional customs relatively intact despite the pressures of Spanish and Anglo-American cultural encroachment. This is how Momaday portrays life in the village:

The people of the town have little need. They do not hanker after progress and have never changed their essential way of life. Their invaders were a long time in conquering them; and now, after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky and make their living from the things that are and have always been within their reach; while in the discrimination of pride they acquire from their conquerors only the luxury of example. They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.

Abel grows up in a world where the preservation of old values counts more than progress. Even today Pueblo life revolves around a complex system of religious ceremonials based on a solar calendar, whose keeper is the cacique, the Pueblo medicine man. According to his observation of the course of the sun, the cacique determines all the essential events of tribal life, the planting, harvesting, and the religious ceremonies.

In House Made of Dawn the old man Francisco functions as the teacher and guardian of the traditional Pueblo way of life. He represents the old generation of the tribe which possesses the cultural heritage and strives to preserve it by handing it down to the next generation. Francisco teaches his grandsons, Abel and Vidal, to observe the sun. He tells them that "they must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time." In revealing the connection between the sun, the landscape, and the rhythms of Indian life, Francisco roots the two boys in the old ways of the tribe. Francisco's teachings are central to their development as well as the perpetuation of Jemez tradition.

Under the guidance of old man Francisco, Abel is raised according to the tribal patterns of his people and acquires a deep feeling for his environment. Typical of Abel's consciousness is his natural attitude toward death: "… he knew somehow that his mother was soon going to die of her illness. It was nothing he was told, but he knew it anyway and without understanding, as he knew already the motion of the sun and the seasons." Abel is at the center of Indian life. He herds sheep, takes part in a deer hunt, and participates in the ceremonial activities of his tribe.

Despite this seeming harmony with the tribal world, however, Abel somehow remains a stranger within his community. Not only during his time away from the reservation but also while growing up among his own people, he lives in a state of isolation. He was born into his position as an outsider: "He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange." Tribal communities are not necessarily homogenous entities as they are often perceived by outsiders; within the tribe subgroups may exist which do not meet the full acceptance of the majority. The early deaths of his mother and brother increase Abel's isolation. He is left with his grandfather, Francisco, as his only other relation.

Preoccupied with Abel's conforming to the tribal tradition, Francisco monopolizes his education. He forbids him to find a substitute mother in Josie, one of the women in the village. The lack of family ties prevents Abel's full integration into the native community. As Abel approaches adolescence he finds it increasingly difficult to accept tribal patterns and the domineering authority of his grandfather.

It is common for young people at this stage of personal development to question the way of life which adults in their families or communities expect them to adopt. Momaday shows in his novel the severity of the conflict between a budding individual and a rigid tribal pattern which depends for its perpetuation on the absence of individual awareness. He reveals how the crisis in Abel's personal development reflects a crisis in Pueblo culture.

Pueblo traditionalists maintain that in an age of growing pressure from outside the tribal culture can only survive in isolation. Even though technical attainments of Anglo-American culture have been adopted for their obvious usefulness, Pueblo communities are very reluctant to allow any interference that could dilute traditional tribal life. This inevitably leads to tremendous pressures in the educational processes of young Indians. A culture which depends for its survival on the adoption of age-old patterns by the next generation not only shelters against influences from the outside but also ignores or even suppresses the individual needs of its members. Thus a generation conflict is almost unavoidable….

Abel's decision to leave the Pueblo community grows out of the realization that he cannot find an identity simply by adopting the teachings of his grandfather. Momaday shows by means of a few central events that Abel has no choice but to step out of the limiting realm of his native village in order to remain true to himself.

A most significant experience during Abel's adolescence is his vision of an eagle which carries a snake in its talons: "He had seen a strange thing, an eagle overhead with its talons closed upon a snake. It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning." Both eagle and snake have deeply religious meanings for the Indians of the Southwest. The snake is associated with the coming of water and is worshiped in ceremonies such as the famous snake dance of the Hopis. The eagle is believed to attain supernatural powers on its flights and is revered in the eagle dance. The appearance of the eagle and snake together is of particular religious importance, just as the plumed serpent is a major mythological figure.

For Abel the eagle is a symbol of freedom, beauty, and life: "They were golden eagles, a male and a female, in their mating flight. They were cavorting, spinning and spiraling on the cold, clear columns of air, and they were beautiful." When Abel first sees the two birds, he is "on the rim of the Valle Grande, a great volcanic crater that lay high up on the western slope of the range. It was the right eye of the earth, held open to the sun. Of all places that he knew, this valley alone could reflect the great spatial majesty of the sky." Standing high above the plateau he has a view of the whole extent of his world and observes the eagles as they fly across and beyond the land, disappearing in the endless sky. Perhaps it is in this vision that Abel realizes the limitations of his life under the rules of his tribal community.

His observation of the eagles and the snake gains him the permission of the Eagle Watcher Society to take part in an eagle hunt. Again he sees the two eagles and eventually succeeds in catching the female bird. He returns to the other hunters in the plain who celebrate him in much the same way as Francisco was celebrated after his successful bear hunt. Abel, however, cannot enjoy this honor. He does not understand or cannot accept that his respect for the animal can be reconciled with his act of depriving it of its freedom for the benefit of the community. Eagle feathers are highly valued as indispensable requisites for ceremonials. The closeness of the captive eagle's spirit to the village is regarded as a beneficial influence on the life at Jemez.

When his peers allow the less attractive male eagle to return to the sky, Abel is overcome by a feeling of longing, as if he wanted to follow the bird:

It leveled off and sailed. Then it was gone from sight, but he looked after it for a time. He could see it still in the mind's eye and hear in his memory the awful whisper of its flight on the wind. It filled him with longing. He felt the great weight of the bird which he held in the sack. The dusk was fading quickly into night, and the others could not see that his eyes were filled with tears.

Instead of feeling victorious about the hunt, in keeping with tribal tradition, Abel is sad and disgusted. He decides to kill the bird rather than allow it to live in captivity in the village. This killing is not a ritual act, as one critic assumed, but an act of rebellion against a tribal custom Abel cannot comprehend. This interpretation is corroborated by the absence of any ritual preparation and by Abel's psychological state when he acts.

There are a number of other scenes in the novel which show Abel in similar emotional states in response to animal life. After the rabbit hunt he feels "something like remorse or disappointment" about the killing of animals. Similarly, he shows a strange affection for the small fish along the coast of California: "… small silversided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. The thought of it made him sad, filled him with sad, unnamable longing and wonder."

These emotional reactions reflect a deep respect for the well-being of other life forms, an attitude common among American Indian peoples. However, Abel fails to see the wider implications of the man-animal relationship in his tribal religion. The hunting and killing of animals does not constitute a breach of the spiritual bond between man and animal if it is performed in the appropriate traditional way….

Momaday dramatized this concept in Francisco's bear hunt. Francisco proceeds strictly according to the code of honor which regulates the hunt:

And he did not want to break the stillness of the night, for it was holy and profound; it was rest and restoration, the hunter's offering of death and the sad watch of the hunted, waiting somewhere away in the cold darkness and breathing easily of its life, brooding around at last to forgiveness and consent; the silence was essential to them both, and it lay out like a bond between them, ancient and inviolable.

The bear's knowledge of Francisco's approach, the absence of fear and hurry, and Francisco's following "in the bear's tracks" suggest an old intimacy between the hunter and the hunted. The ritual blessing of the bear with pollen is an expression of gratitude and respect, a plea for propitiation.

Without the knowledge of these ancient practices Abel reacts emotionally rather than ritualistically. His shame and disgust are inappropriate responses within the framework of traditional Indian thought and reflective of his estrangement from his tribal heritage. Abel's failure to perceive or accept the intricacies of tribal tradition is also at the center of his conflict with Francisco. The young Indian not only is unable to comprehend certain aspects of his native tradition but also has lost respect for his grandfather as the representative of the ancient ways. Abel is "almost a grown man" when he has a riding accident: "… for days afterward there was a sharp, recurrent pain in the small of his back. Francisco chanted and prayed; the old man applied herbs and powders and potions and salves, and nothing worked." This incident may well have contributed to Abel's loss of faith in his grandfather and his native culture.

His inability to adhere to the rules of tradition brings about the final break between Francisco and Abel: "You ought to do this and that, his grandfather said. But the old man had not understood, would not understand, only wept, and Abel left him alone. It was time to go, and the old man was away in the fields." Abel's decision to leave is the final rejection of authority, grown out of the conviction that in the rigidness of his tribal environment he will be unable to find fulfillment and an identity. His leaving is a departure in dread, accompanied by fear of an unknown future in an unknown world.

Momaday stresses the young Indian's position between two cultures by means of Abel's shoes. The shoes are typical of the white man's fashion in the city and therefore conspicuous to traditional Indians. In some Pueblo communities tribal rules demand that shoes or boots can be worn only if the heel is cut off, to a avoid injury to the sacred earth on which the community's existence depends. Abel, however, does not share this orthodox view; to him the shoes are simply objects of good craftsmanship, admirable in their own right, like "the work of a good potter or painter or silversmith." As Abel steps out of his native community, he is wearing these shoes, having waited "a long time for the occasion to wear them." In this situation they signify the world he is about to enter, and as Abel realizes this he grows anxious and afraid:

But now and beyond his former frame of reference, the shoes called attention to Abel. They were brown and white; they were conspicuously new and too large; they shone; they clattered and creaked. And they were nailed to his feet. There were enemies all around, and he knew that he was ridiculous in their eyes.

Despite Abel's fears of what awaits him in the alien world of modern America, his departure is a necessary step toward his understanding of himself.

Abel's withdrawal from the tribe is the result of a disturbed communication between the old and the young generation. Anxious to preserve the ancient tribal ways, the old members of the pueblo have grown blind to the needs of the young. In the following section I examine Abel's struggle for an identity in the context of the tension between modern American and tribal cultures.

When Abel returns to his grandfather after having served in the U.S. Army in World War II, he is drunk. His flight into alcohol indicates his inability to cope with the horror and turmoil of his recent past. Abel is confused. His drunken state reflects a lack of inner stability as a result of his bicultural situation. Alcoholism, in part a reaction to being cut adrift from native cultures and being unable to come to terms with the mainstream of American society, is a widespread problem among the American Indian population.

During the two weeks Abel spends in his grandfather's house, he tries to halt his mental and physical disintegration and find his way back to the center of Indian life. He struggles to become attuned to the culture he left as an adolescent, and he tries to rid himself of the destructive influences of a war in an alien world.

On the morning after his return Abel climbs the hill outside the village. In the growing light of the new day, he looks out over the pueblo and the land. As he is standing there, a number of episodes from his boyhood and the war come to his mind. The series of flashbacks must be seen not merely as a technical device Momaday employs to make the reader familiar with the protagonist's past. In reliving central episodes of his childhood and adolescence, Abel tries to reintegrate himself into his environment, to imagine himself into an existence he can understand and with which he can identify. He re-creates previous experiences in his mind, trying to come to grips with his confused state. His recollections become a psychological process of searching for the roots of his confusion.

While Abel is very capable of comprehending the memories of his Indian boyhood, he is unable to come to terms with the months and years he spent away from the pueblo: "This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind."

The shock of war is the determining factor in Abel's early manhood, as the vision of the eagles' flight was a central event in his adolescence. In the alien world he becomes subject to a dehumanizing military conflict. The dehumanization comes across forcefully in his recollection of his war experience through the recurrent reference to the tank as "the machine." The tank symbolizes the deadening force of an aggressive, technological society. The atmosphere of death and destruction is reinforced by another recurrent image pattern; damp, matted, wet, cold, and falling leaves intensify the scene's implications of decay and annihilation:

Then through the falling leaves, he saw the machine. It rose up behind the hill, black and massive, looming there in front of the sun. He saw it swell, deepen, and take shape on the skyline, as if it were some upheaval of the earth, the eruption of stone and eclipse, and all about it the glare, the cold perimeter of light, throbbing with leaves. For a moment it seemed apart from the land; its great iron hull lay out against the timber and the sky, and the center of its weight hung away from the ridge. Then it came crashing down to the grade, slow as a waterfall, thunderous, surpassing impact, nestling almost into the splash and boil of debris. He was shaking violently, and the machine bore down upon him, came close, and passed him by. A wind rose and ran along the slope, scattering the leaves.

The image of the machine as the embodiment of destruction and denial of life stands in sharp contrast to the crucial experience in Abel's youth when the eagles appeared to him as symbols of life and freedom.

It has already been pointed out that Abel had no stable identity when he left the pueblo; indeed, he entered the world of modern America because the restrictive environment of his home impeded his growth toward personal identity. During his absence from the Indian village his inner stability does not grow but is further disturbed by the traumatic events of the war. As an Indian among white soldiers he is denied a personal identity by his comrades. He is the "chief" who is "giving it to the tank in Sioux or Algonquin or something." This statement by one of Abel's war companions shows why Abel is prevented from becoming assimilated. The dominant Anglocentric environment has stereotyped him as an Indian without regard for his individuality. In pressing him into this misconceived role, his peers not only shut him out from their culture but also deny his identity as a Jemez man.

Abel returns to the reservation in a state of identity confusion which is typical of adolescence. Even though Abel is approximately twenty-five years old, he is devoid of the sense of wholeness which is the basis for maturation into adulthood. [In his Identity: Youth and Crisis] Erik Erikson wrote that "the young person, in order to experience wholeness, must feel a progressive continuity between that which he had come to be during the long years of childhood and that which he promises to become in the anticipated future: between that which he conceives himself to be and that which he perceives others to see in him and expect of him."

For Abel progressive continuity is disrupted by his inability to accept tribal rules and by the damaging impact of his life outside the native community. The break from his culture and the effects of the war lead Abel into a state of confusion, isolation, and estrangement. With regard to such a crisis Erikson pointed out that "youth which is eager for, yet unable to find access to, the dominant techniques of society, will not only feel estranged from society, but also upset in sexuality, and most of all unable to apply aggression constructively." Abel shows all these symptoms of identity confusion in his estrangement from the ritual and ceremonial practices of his tribe, in his relationship with Angela, and in his outburst of aggression which leads to the killing of the albino.

First Abel tries to reattune himself to the land and the culture of his tribe by searching for a sign in his environment: "He stood for a long time, the land yielding to the light. He stood without thinking, nor did he move; only his eyes roved after something." Abel is feeling his way back to a center which has been lost to him. Only by relating himself to this center can he reestablish order and overcome his inner chaos. His search is informed with religious meaning, as it aims at a communion with the land which is sacred to his people. This search for a sign, as Mircea Eliade pointed out [in The Sacred and the Profane], is a universal religious impulse in a state of disequilibrium: "A sign is asked, to put an end to the tension and anxiety caused by relativity and disorientation—in short, to reveal an absolute point of support."

When a little later Abel sees his grandfather and some of the other Indians working in the fields, he acquires for a moment the old familiar sense of unity with his homeland: "The breeze was very faint, and it bore a scent of earth and grain; and for a moment everything was all right with him. He was at home." But even as Abel recognizes that he has not entirely lost the ties to his native environment, he soon finds himself unable to enter the ceremonial life of his tribe.

Five days after Abel's return, the people of Jemez celebrate the game of the Chicken Pull. This activity was introduced by the Spaniards and adopted by many of the southwestern tribes. The Rio Grande Pueblos view the insertion of the rooster into the ground and its subsequent removal as a symbolic representation of planting and reaping. The scattering of the rooster's feathers and blood are representative of rain and are believed to increase the fertility of the land and the success of the harvest.

Abel's participation in this ancient ceremony offers him an opportunity for reconciliation with his tribal culture: "For the first time since coming home he had done away with his uniform. He had put on his old clothes." His effort in the game, however, proves to be a failure: "When it came Abel's turn, he made a poor showing, full of caution and gesture." And when the albino as the victorious rider turns against Abel and starts beating him with the rooster in accordance with the rules of the game, he is unable to cope with the situation: "Abel was not used to the game, and the white man was too strong and quick for him." He is estranged from the old traditions and consequently fails to integrate himself into the cultural context of his community.

Another Pueblo ceremonial which could have been of help to Abel is the Pecos Bull Dance, which the Jemez people perform on August 1. Momaday witnessed the ceremony as a child. He described it thus [in The Names]:

On the first of August, at dusk, the Pecos Bull ran through the streets of Jemez, taunted by the children, chased by young boys who were dressed in outlandish costumes, most in a manner which parodied the curious white Americans who came frequently to see the rich sights of Jemez on feast days. This "bull" was a man who wore a mask, a wooden framework on his back covered with black cloth and resembling roughly a bull, the head of which was a crude thing made of horns, a sheepskin, and a red cloth tongue which wagged about. It ran around madly, lunging at the children.

Alfonso Ortiz noted [in New Perspectives on the Pueblos] that one purpose of burlesque and mock violence in Pueblo ritual drama is catharsis, the "purgation of individuals or community of rebellious tendencies so that they behave during the rest of the year." The ceremony could have offered Abel a chance to vent his aggression against white Americans in a ritual way rather than in the hostile manner he later employs against the albino….

Abel's reluctance to take part in the Bull Dance arises from his lack of identification with tribal rituals and perhaps also from his disbelief in their effectiveness. His loss of confidence after the Chicken Pull is a further obstacle to his participation in the event: "It was a hard thing to be the bull, for there was a primitive agony to it, and it was a kind of victim, an object of ridicule and hatred; and harder now that the men of the town had relaxed their hold upon the ancient ways, had grown soft and dubious. Or they had merely grown old." Momaday indicates in this context the increasing difficulty of adhering to the old traditions, which is a major problem, particularly for the young Indian generation represented by Abel. The ancient traditions tend to lose their meaning for young tribal members in their confrontation with mainstream America. This crisis in the Indian cultures adds to the identity problem exemplified in the figure of Abel.

A further indication of Abel's failure to reenter the Indian world of his childhood is his loss of articulation. His inability to find the proper words to acquire wholeness and communion with his culture and his homeland makes him aware that his return to the town has failed:

Abel walked into the canyon. His return to the town had been a failure, for all his looking forward. He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past and the words had taken hold of the moment and made it eternal. Had he been able to say it, anything in his own language—even the most commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of custom still—but inarticulate.

Some sense of the old harmony still remains, but Abel lacks the active power to reestablish harmony. This power is the power of the word….

The word links the Indian to his religious and mythological heritage. Indian culture is based on an oral tradition and maintained through the creative power of the word. If the word is lost, culture and identity are forfeited, as wholeness can only be established by the word. The following passage shows that Abel has indeed lost the power of words:

He began almost to be at peace, as if he had drunk a little of warm, sweet wine, for a time no longer centered upon himself. He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.

As his imaginative re-creation of his childhood and adolescence was an attempt to understand his problematic situation, his effort to make a song is an endeavor to restore harmony between himself and the universe. Abel's creation song would have been a bid for the creative power that heals, restores harmony, and provides wholeness. However, he "has not the right words" and thus remains isolated. It is not until his recital of the Night Chant at the end of the book that he regains his voice.

The second symptom of identity confusion, according to Erikson, the upset in sexuality, becomes apparent in the relationship between Abel and Angela St. John. After his failed attempts to find access to the tribal rituals and ceremonies, Abel tries to acquire some kind of stability in an intimate relationship with the white woman. This second endeavor proves to be as unsuccessful as the first. The insecurity Abel exposes in both his dealing with tribal roles and his relationship with Angela is a symptom of his confused identity. Erikson described the crisis of intimacy as the first postadolescent identity crisis. He pointed out that without a well-developed identity formation true intimacy cannot be achieved. "Where a youth," he continued, "does not accomplish such intimate relationships with others—and … with his own inner resources—in late adolescence or in early adulthood, he may settle for highly stereotyped interpersonal relations and come to retain a deep sense of isolation."

Abel's inability to achieve true intimacy, then, can be seen as the result of the absence of meaningful relationships in his formative years. He grew up fatherless, lost his mother and brother in early boyhood, and never fully achieved an intimacy with the tribal community. There was also a possibly decisive, unsuccessful encounter with a young Indian girl during his adolescence. Abel's behavior toward Angela seems to indicate that this incident is still somewhere in the back of his mind. He tenaciously avoids exposing himself to humiliation and chooses to remain in the shell of his own self: "He would give her no clear way to be contemptuous of him."

Abel is portrayed as the stereotype of the mute Indian. He avoids talking at any length and frequently does not react at all to Angela's questions. His fear of getting hurt and his inability to communicate his feelings are typical of his behavior: "His face darkened, but he hung on, dumb and immutable. He would not allow himself to be provoked. It was easy, natural for him to stand aside, hang on." His lack of articulation, which earlier in the novel prevented him from bringing forth a creation song, is now the main obstacle to an intimate relationship with Angela. She grows aware of a kind of powerlessness in Abel: "There he stood, dumb and docile at her pleasure, not knowing, she supposed, how even to take his leave."

Abel's failure to establish a relationship with Angela seems to be the result of his incomplete identity formation. Throughout the novel he appears as a loner on a quest for a secure place, for a stability which he cannot find in an intimate relationship because he has not found himself. This dilemma accompanies Abel on his odyssey between Indian and modern American culture.

The third characteristic of identity confusion, the inability to vent aggression appropriately, leads to the climax of the first chapter, Abel's killing of the albino. This act of violence reflects Abel's inability to cope with the confusion he is subject to in his personal and cultural isolation. American culture has estranged him from his home: his endeavor to enter into the ceremonial life of his tribe has been unsuccessful; his attempt to establish an identity in an intimate relationship with Angela has failed. The resulting frustration is one source of the aggression Abel directs against the albino. Another is the deeply rooted fear which has dwelt in him since his early childhood—the fear that evil forces in the universe may exert their influence in him. This anxiety is common among Indian tribes. Abel's inability to comprehend the intricate nature of witchcraft leads to his individual and violent reaction against the albino, which could have been avoided through ritual.

The figure of the albino is a complex image of Abel's schizoid state of mind: his outburst of violence is an act of revenge against the "white man's world" and is at the same time the execution of an evil spirit….

Abel's first encounter with the albino takes place during the Chicken Pull: "The appearance of one of the men was striking. He was large, lithe, and white-skinned; he wore little round colored glasses and rode a fine black horse of good blood." The albino turns out to be the winner in the game, even though Angela observes that in his movements "there was something out of place, some flaw in proportion or design, some unnatural thing." This is the first indication, apart from the physical otherness of the white man, that there is something strange about him. In the course of the game Abel finds himself confronted with the albino and loses out because of his alienation from tribal customs.

Although the albino is an Indian, he carries the stigma of an outsider and, in Abel's mind, seems partly associated with the evils of the white world. In the community he is believed to be a witch. Old man Francisco has a vague notion of his presence when working in the fields: "… he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand…. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was." Francisco can accept the existence of evil embodied in the albino. He has an understanding of the presence of sinister forces in the universe. Abel, however, cannot rationalize the inevitability of evil at this stage. It is not until his vision of the runners after evil later in the novel that he comprehends this idea.

Abel's latent fear of witchcraft is awakened by his encounter with the albino. Perhaps he is reminded of his childhood experience with the ill-reputed old woman Nicolás teah-whau.

The fear of witchcraft is Abel's conscious motive for killing the albino, which makes his action an act of self-defense. The problem, however, is more complex, for Abel's action cannot be seen simply in terms of the tribal context which allows the execution of witches. Abel's act of violence grows out of his frustration about his cultural estrangement and his feeling of inadequacy. It is possible that Abel recognizes himself in the figure of the albino, a mixture of Indian and white. Viewed in this light, Abel's act of destruction is an attempt to annihilate his own confused self. In doing so by culturally sanctioned means he is trying to find his way back to his tribal background. The albino, then, serves as a scapegoat. The cultural ambiguity of the albino figure is highlighted in this scene:

Then he [the white man] closed his hands upon Abel and drew him close. Abel heard the strange excitement of the white man's breath, and the quick, uneven blowing at his ear, and he felt the blue quivering lips upon him, felt even the scales of the lips and the hot, slippery point of the tongue, writhing. He was sick with terror and revulsion, and he tried to fling himself away, but the white man held him close. The white immensity of flesh lay over and smothered him. He withdrew the knife and thrust again, lower, deep into the groin.

Abel's destruction of the "white immensity" which threatens to crush him appears not only as an act of self-defense against an assault by a witch but also against the corrupting forces of Anglo-American culture. This latter interpretation is reinforced by the scene's sexual implications—"the white man raised his arms as if to embrace him …, the blue, quivering lips … the hot, slippery point of the tongue, writhing"—all of which suggest a homosexual assault.

Questioned on the ambiguity of this scene, Momaday accepted an interviewer's suggestion that Abel's motif for stabbing the albino is left "entirely open to interpretation." He explained his deliberately ambiguous presentation of the incident by saying that there is "an ineffable aspect to the killing so you simply point to it." One critic pointed to the snake symbolism—"the scales of the lips"—and concluded that it is indicative of Abel's conception of the albino in traditional Christian terms of evil. He judged the killing [according to Lawrence J. Evers] as "more in accordance with Anglo tradition than Indian tradition." There is, however, strong evidence to suggest that Abel is involved in the ritualistic killing of an incarnation of evil which is consistent with the laws of his tribal culture. Abel's statements at the trial that the killing was "the most natural thing in the world" and that "a man kills such an enemy if he can" give credence to such a reading. Moreover, the cruelty and messiness of the slaying are typical of witch executions….

The killing of the albino is a symbolic representation of the cultural conflict which Abel is trying to resolve. In the context of his native culture his act is justified and necessary. Momaday himself said that "not a person at Jemez would have held Abel liable." Nevertheless, Abel's subsequent recognition of the ritual defenses against evil forces and his realization that evil can only be contained, but not eradicated, are fundamental steps to the resolution of his dilemma and his eventual understanding of his tribal tradition.

Many critics of House Made of Dawn have dealt with the albino figure from an anthropological point of view. Only a few have realized that the albino reflects not only Momaday's knowledge of the Indian world of the American Southwest but also his indebtedness to American literature. Charles Woodard was the first critic to point out that the whiteness of the albino owes something to the whiteness of the whale in Melville's Moby-Dick. A closer look at Melville's writings, however, reveals that Moby-Dick is only a minor influence on House Made of Dawn. Momaday's novel shows a more obvious similarity to Billy Budd, Sailor. This is by no means surprising—Billy Budd was one of Momaday's great favorites as a graduate student. Claggart, the albino's counterpart in Melville's story has "an evil nature," is referred to as a "snake," and has a "pallid" complexion as the outer manifestation of his depraved character. Moreover, the story is permeated with homosexual innuendo. Both Billy and Abel are inarticulate, both react violently in their respective crisis, and both are victimized….

The "Priest of the Sun" chapter is the most puzzling and haunting section of House Made of Dawn. The narrative voice is centered in Abel's consciousness as he is lying, delirious from alcohol and the brutal beating he received from Martinez, a violent and corrupt police officer, on the beach outside Los Angeles. Through multiple flashbacks Momaday reveals the psychological situation of a man who is lost between two worlds, torn apart culturally and spiritually, and drifting toward death. Abel is "reeling on the edge of the void," but he does not fall. The very moment when Abel seems to have exhausted all the possibilities of finding redemption holds the seed to his ultimate recovery. In the extremity of his situation Abel gains insights into the core of his native culture which lead him to a new understanding of his place in the scheme of things.

A gap of about six and a half years lies between the end of the opening chapter and the beginning of the next, "The Priest of the Sun." During this time Abel served his prison sentence for killing the albino and, after his release, settled in Los Angeles. However, the burden of the past proves too heavy and the pressure of life in the city too great to allow him integration into his new environment.

In this second chapter Momaday abandons a continuous plot line and operates instead with a device resembling the cutting technique employed in film. Whereas the series of flashbacks in the opening chapter showed a certain continuity by following Abel's growth, this characteristic is now absent. Without any apparent logical connections, fragmentary scenes from Abel's past alternate with blurred perceptions of his immediate environment. The flashbacks encompass scenes from Abel's childhood—Josie, Francisco, Vidal, and his departure from the village—from the trial and his stay in prison, and finally from his relationships with Milly and Angela.

The trial scene is of particular significance, for it is here that the issue of cultural relativism is addressed most explicitly. Abel registers the proceedings with detachment and a keen awareness that his case lies beyond his judges' frame of reference: "Word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it. They were strangely uneasy, full of hesitation, reluctance. He wanted to help them." Father Olguin, the Catholic priest in the pueblo, tries to explain Abel's perception of his victim as an evil spirit, admitting that the motivation behind and execution of the killing must ultimately resist comprehension by anyone outside the Jemez world. The nature of Abel's act is such that it cannot be assessed in terms of American law.

Abel states his own feelings on the issues with the conviction of someone who believes himself to be in accordance with the relevant law:

He had killed a white man. It was not a complicated thing, after all; it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world. Surely they could see that, these men who meant to dispose of him in words. They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there would be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can.

The tragedy is that Abel's law and the law of his judges are incompatible, resting on different cultural assumptions, and that it is in accordance with his judges' law that he is sentenced and sent to prison.

This passage of House Made of Dawn is reminiscent of the trial scene in Albert Camus's The Outsider. In fact, Momaday declared that he had Camus in mind when he wrote about Abel's trial. Although for different reasons—philosophical rather than cultural in nature—Meursault in The Outsider is unrepentant of his killing. He too experiences his case with a profound sense of detachment and isolation. Like Abel he "wasn't to have any say," and "his fate was to be decided out of hand." Yet he too feels the need to help his judges: "Quite often, interested as I was in what they had to say, I was tempted to put in a word, myself." In the end neither Abel nor Meursault can make himself understood.

The sequence of sense perceptions and flashbacks in "The Priest of the Sun" is connected by an underlying image pattern. The intensity of these images, the apparent disjunction of time elements, and the surface illogic—all typical of dreams and hallucinations—account for the haunting, nightmarish effect of this chapter. The reader gets only fragmentary impressions of the conflicts which contributed to Abel's decline. Most of the fragments remain obscure until Ben Benally's first-person narrative in "The Night Chanter" chapter, which gives a coherent account of Abel's life in the city. But in allowing the reader to enter Abel's consciousness in the final stage of his decline Momaday conveys not only the protagonist's confusion but also the possibility that social and cultural barriers are the sources of Abel's disintegration. On the symbolic level Abel's isolation is evoked by the image of the fence: "There was a fence on the bank before him; at his back there was a broad rocky beach, tilting to the sea. The fence was made of heavy wire mesh…. There were cans and bits of paper and broken glass against the fence;… he could almost touch it. He raised himself to reach for the fence and the pain struck him again." Abel's inability to reach let alone overcome the fence is symbolic of his failure to break through the barriers between him and the mainstream of society. After realizing the source of his dilemma during his vision of the men running after evil, Abel finds the strength to reach the fence. It is with its help that he manages to raise himself. Thus the fence symbolism stresses the theme of cultural segregation and at the same time emphasizes Abel's vision as the turning point of the novel.

It is not only the fragmentary structure which precludes any easy interpretation of this crucial chapter. Equally complex is Momaday's use of imagery; only when the seemingly unrelated symbols are combined in a coherent pattern does the full meaning of the beach scene surface. I have argued above that Abel has been suffering from the lack of stable identity, as evidenced by his position as an outsider in the community, his inability to identify with tribal rituals and ceremonies, and his failure to relate on a level of intimacy to his female partners. The process of degeneration resulting from this lack of stability reaches its climax in Abel's struggle with the murderous police officer and subsequently with death itself. The symbols which surround these events suggest that what is actually happening in this powerfully conceived scene is a rite of passage in which Abel progresses from lack of understanding to knowledge, from chaos through ritual death to rebirth.

The scene's setting is in itself suggestive. Abel is "lying in a shallow depression in which there were weeds and small white stones and tufts of long grey grass." It is a common feature of initiation ceremonies that the initiate is placed into a shallow grave from which he eventually rises as a new being. Moreover, the scene happens at night. Darkness, according to Eliade, signifies in such rituals "the beyond, the 'infernal regions.'" The beating Abel receives results from his attempt to get even with Martinez, who has tyrannized him. On the symbolic level this beating represents the initiatory mutilations which are frequent features of rites of passage. Abel's injuries are numerous: "His hands were broken, and he could not move them. Some of his fingers were stuck together with blood, and the blood was dry and black;… there was blood in his throat and mouth." These injuries point to his symbolic death, and it can hardly be a coincidence that amputations of fingers and the knocking out of teeth are common initiatory tortures.

That Abel is lying on the beach, close to water, is of further importance in this context; although there is no suggestion that he actually comes into contact with the sea, he is closely associated with it and the small, silver-sided fish which dwell off the California coast. Water is traditionally a symbol of potential life, of creation and fertility, the element from which all cosmic manifestations emerge and to which they return. Water creates and dissolves. According to Eliade:

Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed. Every contact with water implies regeneration: first, because dissolution is succeeded by a "new birth," and then because immersion fertilizes, increases the potential of life and of creation. In initiation rituals, water confers a "new birth."

Abel's proximity to and association with water, then, suggest the dissolution of his state of estrangement and the potential for rebirth into his tribal culture.

Abel's connection with the fish reinforces the meaning of his transformation:

There is a small silversided fish that is found along the coast of southern California. In the spring and summer it spawns on the beach during the first three hours after each of the three high tides following the highest tide. These fish come by the hundreds from the sea. They hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon. They are among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth.

The meaning of this seemingly unimportant descriptive passage becomes gradually apparent through the affiliation of Abel with the fish. Like them he is lying on the beach. He too is a helpless creature removed from the natural element of his native culture. In his delirious state Abel's thoughts constantly return to the fish, "His mind boggled and withdrew … and it came around again to the fishes." He feels a kind of sympathy for the "small silversided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. The thought of it made him sad, filled him with sad, unnamable longing and wonder." Finally Abel is directly identified with the fish, "He had the sense that his whole body was shaking violently, tossing and whipping, flopping like a fish."

The fish imagery not only reflects Abel's suffering but also indicates the upward movement in his development after he has become aware of his situation. When Abel raises the energy to fight against and eventually escape the drift towards death, the fish too have found their way back to safety in the depth of the sea, as Abel will eventually return home to his tribal community: "And far out in the night where nothing else was, the fishes lay out on the black water, holding still against all the force and motion of the sea; or close to the surface, darting and rolling and spinning like lures, they played in the track of the moon."

The most complex symbol Momaday employs in this chapter is that of the moon. The common denominator in a number of scenes throughout the novel, it brings the various episodes together in Abel's and the reader's minds. The moon, of course, is also associated with the sea and the initiation ritual. Most important, however, it is Abel's realization of the cosmic significance of the moon which brings about his new understanding of a universal order. To appreciate the subtlety of this image pattern, we need to scrutinize in detail its various functions.

The connection of the moon with initiation rituals has already been mentioned. The moon's reappearance after her three-day "death" has traditionally been read as a symbol of rebirth. The Juan Capistrano Indians of California, according to James Frazer [as quoted by Eliade], declared, "As the moon dieth and cometh to life again, so we also, having to die, will again rise." In a number of shamanistic initiation rites the novice is "broken in pieces" in analogy to the phases of the moon. Among the Plains Indians it was customary to focus one's eyes on the moon in order to secure help in a moment of distress. The Pueblo medicine-water chief implored the moon to give him power to see disease. With this information the prominence of the moon image in Abel's consciousness becomes more readily intelligible.

However, it is not just the meanings of regeneration, spiritual assistance, and clearer vision which make the moon such a revealing image of Abel's struggle for recovery. His rise to a securer mode of being is effected above all by his growing awareness of the moon as a unifying and controlling force in the universe. Eliade pointed out [in Patterns on Comparative Religion] that "the myths of 'quest' and of 'initiation trials' reveal, in artistic or dramatic form, the actual act by which the mind gets beyond a conditioned, piecemeal universe, swinging between opposites, to return to the fundamental oneness that existed before creation." An important step towards Abel's understanding of cosmic unity lies in his realization that the moon controls the sea as well as the land: "Why should Abel think of the fishes? He could not understand the sea; it was not of his world. It was an enchanted thing, too, for it lay under the spell of the moon. It bent to the moon, and the moon made a bright, shimmering course upon it" (italics added). This recognition of the moon's universal power to order and control the universe reflects Abel's growing reattunement to American Indian thought.

In the Southwest, as elsewhere among tribal peoples, the moon functions together with the sun as the measure of the yearly cycle in the life of the community. The Santa Clara Pueblos believe that "the function of the sun, the moon, stars, the Milky Way, and other such features, is to make the earth inhabitable for human beings" [Edgar L. Hewett and Bertha P. Dutton, The Pueblo Indian World, 1945]. This idea has practical consequences for everyday Indian life. The belief, for instance, that the moon exerts a strong influence on the growth of plants has immediate impact on the process of sowing and reaping. At the beginning of House Made of Dawn, Momaday refers to the moon's influence on the communal work in the fields: "The townsmen work all summer in the fields. When the moon is full, they work at night with ancient, handmade plows and hoes." The holiness attributed to the moon by American Indians is alluded to in the "red and yellow symbols of the sun and the moon" which decorate the lectern in the Indian church in Los Angeles. Eliade noted that "the moon shows man his true human condition; that in a sense man looks at himself, and finds himself anew in the life of the moon." If one subscribes to this idea, then Abel's rediscovery of his native heritage appears to be a result of his reattunement to a lunar rhythm.

Abel's understanding of the secrets of lunar control of the universe also arises from recollections and reinterpretations of some of his earlier hunting experiences. The image of the moon functions as an associative link to other scenes where animal imagery mirrors Abel's distress. One of these instances, the parallel between him and the fish, has already been discussed. The eagle hunt is another example: "Bound and helpless, his eagle seemed drab and shapeless in the moonlight, too large and ungainly for flight." A third event of this kind occurs in one of Abel's recollections of his childhood. It is the hunting scene in which he recovers a shot water bird:

He took it up in his hands and it was heavy and warm and the feathers about its keel were hot and sticky with blood. He carried it out into the moonlight, and its bright black eyes, in which no terror was, were wide of him, wide of the river and the land, level and hard upon the ring of the moon in the southern sky.

The depiction of the dying bird strikingly resembles the description of Abel's own suffering in the face of death: "He awoke coughing; there was blood in his throat and mouth. He was shuddering with cold and pain…. He peered into the night: all around the black land against the star-bright, moon-bright sky."

In these instances the moon imagery connects Abel's present and past experiences. In recollecting the dying water bird, with its fearless black eyes, Abel can establish a link between his own desperate state and the reaction of the animal. The bird is part of the complexity of nature and is by nature without the fear of death. Abel too had a natural attitude towards death when, as a boy, he was still close to the Indian understanding of the universe. His loss of identification with his heritage has led him away from this natural view of death and contributed to the intense fears which are haunting him now.

The moon, then, is strongly suggestive of a hope for rebirth. This is an entirely new perspective for Abel. If one recalls the scene in which he destroys the eagle because he felt pity and shame, it is obvious that Abel did not share in the traditional belief of many hunting communities that the spirit of the animal survives and returns in a new physical manifestation. If he had been attuned to the rituals of the hunters, as old man Francisco was on his bear hunt, he could have killed the eagle in the appropriate ritual way, with a sense of gratitude and appreciation rather than remorse.

Momaday uses a number of devices to reinforce further the connection between Abel and the moon. In two instances the course of the moonlight on the water functions as a bridge, and in the following passage a flock of birds serves as a link: "Then they [the birds] were away, and he had seen how they craned their long slender necks to the moon, ascending slowly into the far reaches of the winter night. They made a dark angle on the sky, acute, perfect; and for one moment they lay out like an omen on the bright fringe of a cloud."

Abel's recognition of the moon as a vital influence shows that he is beginning to return to the traditional Indian concept of the universe. The following passage, which comprises the three images of sea, moon, and fish, unites bird and fish imagery and thus widens the scope of Abel's vision to a universal dimension:

And somewhere beyond the cold and the fog and the pain there was the black and infinite sea, bending to the moon, and there was the cold white track of the moon on the water. And far out in the night where nothing else was, the fishes lay out in the black waters, holding still against all the force and motion of the sea;… And far away inland there were great gray geese riding under the moon.

Land and sea, man and animal are related in their connection with the moon. This notion coincides with the general idea of the interrelatedness of all elements in the Indian universe. By growing aware of this idea Abel discovers that he too is tied up in the totality of creation and has a legitimate place in it.

Another major step towards restoration and initiation into his tribal culture is Abel's vision of the runners after evil. Dreams and visions have always been of utmost significance in the lives of American Indian peoples. John Skinner commented on the religious nature of dreams in the Indian world: "Man succeeds first in his dreams…. man becomes in dreams and words before he becomes in deeds. A man becomes his successful dream, not his successful deed" ["On Indian Poetry and Religion," Little Square Review, Nos. 5-6 (1968)]. Abel's experience must be seen in the light of this statement. In his vision he catches, for the first time, a glimpse of the meaning of tribal ritual as he becomes aware of its importance for the relationship between the individual and the universe:

The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

The vision confronts Abel with the ritualistic practices the elders of the tribe employ to maintain control over the supernatural. The race is connected with the ceremony of clearing the irrigation ditches in the spring. It is an imitation of water running through the channels, a magic bid for the vital supply of rain, and a ritual act to prevent the harvest from being influenced by evil powers. This vision modifies Abel's view of his own actions in the past; he realizes that, although his destruction of the albino as a source of evil was in accordance with tribally sanctioned practices, Pueblo religion offers nonviolent ways of controlling supernatural powers. The ritualistic expression of human creativity through words in songs and prayers and through motion in dance and ceremonial races is the central instrument by which the Indian maintains a balance between himself and the universe.

Abel's growing understanding of the cosmic order in terms of his tribal heritage leads him to the recognition that his estrangement from the center of Indian life has been the cause of his dilemma. This diagnosis of the source of his "disease" puts him on the road to recovery. Abel's previous inability to make sense of his situation is indicated in a flashback to his departure from the village, which is the continuation of the corresponding passage in the opening chapter: "He tried to think where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was. There was trouble; he could admit that to himself, but he had no real insight into his own situation. Maybe, certainly, that was the trouble; but he had no way of knowing."

Now in his hallucinatory state the insight for which he had searched so long suddenly comes to him: "He had lost his place. he had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." This recognition epitomizes the entire development of the novel up to this point. Abel realizes that the Indian world of his boyhood is the only place where he can find a meaningful existence and an identity. As in a vision quest Abel receives a sign which shows him the way to personal wholeness.

Once Abel has by means of his subconscious gained insight into the meaning of ritual and the controlling forces in the universe, he is ready to establish a formal union with his tribal heritage through the ceremony of the Night Chant which Ben Benally conducts for him. The changes he undergoes as a result of his vision enable him to make the "spiritual commitment" of submitting himself to the healing powers of the Night Chant. In doing so, he shows his newfound trust in the effectiveness of Indian ceremonials. In the Night Chant ceremony Abel, as the "patient," remains passive yet, but it is the first step toward his own conduction of a ceremony—the funeral rite after the death of his grandfather—and toward his participation in the ceremonial race that ends the novel.

The result of the Night Chant is the restoration of the wholeness Abel had lost in his crisis of identity and through his exposure to the disruptive forces of incompatible cultural patterns. American Indian ritual and song aim at the preservation of order and at the integration of the individual into the larger context of his environment. [In her "The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective on American Indian Literature," an essay appearing in Abraham Chapman's Literature of the American Indians] Paula Allan remarked that through ceremonial practices "the isolated individualistic personality is shed and the person is restored to conscious harmony with the universe." The Night Chant, then, reestablishes Abel's inner balance and equilibrium with the world around him. In order to achieve this harmony Abel must regain his physical and mental wholeness and his power of the word.

Physical disintegration is the outward sign of Abel's inner conflict: "He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful; it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will;… [now] his body was mangled and racked with pain. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy." The line "restore my body for me" in the chant is directed at the return of Abel's physical strength and his control over his body. The line "restore my mind for me" aims at the restitution of Abel's mental wholeness and the coordination between his body and spirit.

Abel's lack of articulation stood at the center of his personal and cultural isolation. It was a syndrome of his estrangement from the oral tradition without which he remained cut off from his tribal heritage. Gladys A. Reichard stressed the fact that "the 'word' … is of great ritualistic value, and in order to be complete, man must control language. The better his control and the more extensive his knowledge, the greater his well-being." The desire to regain power over the word finds expression in the request "restore my voice for me."

Finally, it is necessary to bring back the power of motion Abel lost in the course of his decline. Reichard pointed out the importance of the power of motion for the Navajos: "Man may breathe and speak, his organs may function well, but without the power of motion he is incomplete, useless." The lines "Restore my feet for me, / Restore my legs for me, / Restore my body for me, / … Happily I recover. / … Happily I go forth. / … Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk" call for the return of Abel's power of motion. The race at the end of the novel shows that the request has been granted.

Abel's return to the Jemez world proceeds from a visionary, subconscious level through a ritualistic to a rational level. His recovery, which originates in his hallucinatory visions and is furthered through Ben's performance of the Night Chant, continues after his return to the pueblo. There he finds Francisco dying. For six days the old medicine man struggles against death, uttering memories of his life during the hours of dawn. Abel listens to his voice but initially fails to understand the meaning of his words. And yet the "voice of his memory was whole and clear and growing like the dawn." It reminds Abel of the secrets of the solar calendar which his grandfather had taught him many years ago, of the ceremonial races and festivities of Jemez, and, in the story of Francisco's bear hunt, of the traditional hunting ways and rituals. Francisco's final recollections seem to refresh Abel's knowledge of the ancient ways of his people; in the end they begin to make sense and carry meaning, for on the morning of the seventh day Abel for the first time conducts a ceremony: "… he knew what had to be done." Strictly adhering to the timeless practices of his tribe, he prepares Francisco for the funeral. In doing so he takes over the role of the dead medicine man.

Significantly, Abel's return to his tribal tradition takes place only a short time before dawn. This event is part of a coherent pattern of dawn images which permeate the novel. The book opens and closes with Abel running across the land at dawn. When Abel is lying on the beach after his fight with Martinez, struggling against death, he can hear the "sound of the city at night, ticking like a clock toward the dawn." If one takes the symbol of dawn to stand for rebirth, a new beginning, and creation, the reference to dawn at this point anticipates Abel's resurrection.

The connection between the symbol of dawn and the idea of creation is suggested in the following passage about Abel's attempt to bring forth a creation song: "He would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills." The first world, fire, and flood are references to the creation myths of many southwestern Indian tribes, such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajos. They hold in common the belief that they emerged to their present land after a migration through several underground worlds, in which they encountered floods or fire. Dawn marks the moment of emergence from the underworld, the beginning of tribal life, and the creation of tribal culture. Every new morning "is the moment of invigoration, when new life awakens and all creation is astir—it is creation itself, an 'in the beginning.'… From the dawn comes generation and birth" [Hartley Burr Alexander, The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians].

At the center of the dawn image pattern stands the following passage, which encompasses the historical migration of a tribe, its cultural crisis, and its potential regeneration:

Man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago. It was a slow migration, though he came only from the caves in the canyons and the tops of the mesas nearby. There are low, broken walls on the tabletops and smoke-blackened caves in the cliffs, where still there are metates and broken bowls and ancient ears of corn, as if the prehistoric civilization had gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn.

This short passage [from The Way to Rainy Mountain] encapsulates the essence of House Made of Dawn: the novel shows how a traditional Indian community which is threatened in its cultural survival by an encroaching alien world is struggling to defend itself against this influence. The demand for strict adherence to traditional practices leads to pressure within the tribe and thus aggravates the crisis. This pressure may result, as in Abel's case, in identity conflicts among young Indians, who, though rooted in their cultural background, cannot ignore the reality of a modern age brought about by an alien culture. Their need to develop their individuality within the tribal community must find the support of their elders.

In the passage quoted above Momaday puts a cultural crisis in its wider historical and mythological context. He points out that the archaeological remnants of previous Indian generations only seem to indicate the extinction of an ancient civilization, because Pueblo culture has survived to the present. In referring to the cyclical concept of time Momaday demonstrates his belief in the inherent potential of American Indian cultures to survive historical crises. That the new rise of the old culture should take place an hour before the dawn seems unimportant in the narrow context of this passage. In the larger context of the novel, however, it becomes most significant: Abel's celebration of the funeral rites for his grandfather "a while … before the dawn" is not only the moment when he finds his way back to his tribe but also, from a historical perspective, the point where Jemez culture gains new impetus in its struggle to survive a period of cultural encroachment and oppression. Like the Bahkyush people who had once journeyed along the edge of oblivion and recovered to become eagle hunters and rainmakers, Abel, who is associated with this group as an eagle hunter, also returned from the edge of the void to become a dawn runner. As the Kiowas' migration from the north of the American continent to the south and east was "a journey toward the dawn" which "led to a golden age," the positive outcome of Abel's migration between two worlds can be seen as a hopeful beginning of a new period of Pueblo culture.

In much the same way as the reference to the cyclical concept of time indicates the potentially positive resolution of the historical crisis in Indian culture, the cyclical structure of the novel justifies a hopeful reading of Abel's future. At the close of the book Abel returns to the personal wholeness and harmony with the universe which were his main strengths at its beginning. Indeed the cyclical concept of tribal history and the cyclical movement of Abel's personal history interconnect at the end. Abel, whose dilemma is the product of historical crisis in Indian culture, overcomes his identity conflict and symbolically resolves the communal crisis of his tribe. Momaday's own comment on House Made of Dawn points in this direction: "I see the novel as a circle. It ends where it begins and it's informed with a kind of thread that runs through it and holds everything together" ["An Interview with N. Scott Momaday," Puerto del Sol 12, No. 1 (1973)] This race, then, is a race for identity, both personal and communal. It finds its final resolution in the ceremonial race which shows Abel reconciled with his native culture and the Indian universe.

Many alienated characters in recent American fiction—Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's Joe Christmas in Light in August, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Run—are running away from something and have no viable alternative to which they can turn. Abel is unique in that his running manifests an act of integration, not a symbol of estrangement. Momaday himself suggested this reading of the symbol by referring to its cultural context: "The man running is fitting himself into the basic motion of the universe…. That is simply a symbolism which prevails in the southwestern Indian world." In ["The Morality of Indian Hating"] Momaday explained this ceremonial race which is "run at dawn before the spring cleaning of the Jemez irrigation ditches":

It is a stick race: the runners imitate the Cloud People who fill the arroyos with life-giving rain, and keep in motion, with only their feet, a "stick-ball" which represents the moving drift of the water's edge. The first race each year comes in February, and then the dawn is clear and cold, and the runners breathe steam. It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elemental power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things.

Abel's running at dawn, singing the words of the Night Chant, marks the end of his struggle for identity. He has finally returned to his place in the house made of dawn. He has found the right words to articulate himself and he has a vision of the appropriate path to wholeness. The novel's final scene is charged with mythological overtones: according to a Pueblo emergence myth, Iatik, the corn mother, after creating the present world, called on the people to emerge from the previous world underground. As they entered their new environment they were blind. Then, the story [as related by Richard Erdoes in The Rain Dance People] goes on to explain, "Iatik lined them up in a row facing east and made the sun come up for the first time in this new world to shine upon them. And when its rays shone upon the eyes of the people, they were opened and they could see."

In the primordial setting of dawn over the Jemez Valley, Abel too "could see at last without having to think. He could see the canyons and the mountains and the sky. He could see the rain and the river and the fields beyond. He could see the dark hills at dawn." His new vision and voice are expressions of his communion with his native tradition and raise the hope that he may become the living link between the ancient past and a promising future for his tribal culture.

N. Scott Momaday with Dagmar Weiler (interview date April 1986)

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SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Story Teller," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 118-26.

[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in April, 1986, Weiler and Momaday discuss various aspects of House Made of Dawn.]

[Weiler]: I'd like to talk very briefly about your position as an Indian writer. Last semester, I took an undergraduate class in which we read Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Storyteller, and I remember that some of the students had problems with those works. We also read House Made of Dawn, which I think was the last novel, and they found difficulty there, too. They asked the question: "Where is the message [in House Made of Dawn] comparable to that of an angry woman like Leslie Silko, or that found in some of the poems by Joy Harjo and what enables them to take a stand?" The students seemed to be missing this. I remember two years ago in an interview you said that you didn't make social comments. In connection with this "Indian" issue, how do you see yourself?

[Momaday]: I don't see myself as an Indian writer. I don't know what that means. I am an Indian, and I am a writer, but I don't just want to say "Indian writer" or to talk about Indian literature. I don't know what that means, exactly, and I don't identify with it at all.

You did a review of several books in 1971. You talked then about Vine DeLoria and other Indian writers. I had the impression you criticized them somewhat for stressing their Indian stand. Let me quote this. You said: "As far as I can see, the Indians who are giving the best account of themselves at present are doing so without any particular regard to movement as such or to the ways in which they are accounted for by the others." So you would say that first of all you are a storyteller, a writer who happens to be an Indian?

Or I'm an Indian who happens to be a storyteller. I don't order those things in any particular way. I am an Indian and a writer, but I'm a lot of other things as well. They are all very important to me.

It just struck me that you have had many discussions with these young people. They were looking, especially in the early 70s, to Red Power, and these young students were expecting something out of, for example, House Made of Dawn. You know, what the Indian should do, and they didn't find it there. Maybe they missed something. They immediately realized or thought that the Albino was the symbol for the White man. It was easier with an angry woman like Silko. It was much more out in the open: the social, political, and economic problems. You stress the fact that you are a poet, but I would like to talk about the prose. "The Way to Rainy Mountain": it appeared as an essay; it has been anthologized.

Yes, the introduction.

The introduction appeared as an essay: you published it as a book together with short Kiowa tales, and later the priest Tosamah uses it in House Made of Dawn. Is there a difference between the three forms? Would you say the impact is different?

Well, yes. I would say that it functions as the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain. In House Made of Dawn, it functions in a different way because it tells us something about one of the characters in the novel. It is the delineation of Tosoma's character, among other things, so it's completely different.

That is one thing that I had problems with—that Tosamah was telling the story. House Made of Dawn fascinates me. It is disturbing


mainly because there are many beautiful voices. Let's talk about Father Olguin and Angela, or maybe not so much about Father Olguin but Frey Nicolas. How did Nicolas appear in House Made of Dawn? Did you rely on old manuscripts? Is he right out of old missionary ledgers?

I didn't research the book at all. It just came right out of my imagination. I don't know how I happened to get the idea of the character of Nicolas. He's very much in place because he's a missionary, and the missionaries, especially the Catholic missionaries in pueblos, are very important. I think they have, in over four hundred years, made a great difference—. Well, I'm not sure I want to say that. I don't know if they have made a difference or not, but they have become a kind of institution in the pueblos over that period of time, and they are interesting, you know, the priests and the pueblos. I got to thinking about their lives and what they must feel, being the representatives of the Catholic church to what in the past certainly had been a pagan society. They must have felt very isolated, and I wanted a character that would represent that sort of dichotomy in pueblo life. Frey Nicolas was the answer for me. He could occupy that position of an intermediary in the pueblo and articulate some of the conflicts that informed the pueblo world. In a sense, Father Olguin comes as a later representative of that same conflict; Angela comes as a later representative of that conflict. So it seemed that such a character would be interesting and, indeed, I enjoyed working with both Frey Nicolas and Father Olguin.

I think many of us find it fascinating that all the voices are distinctive. Nicolas, for example, in the first entry: the voice is that of [a] missionary who is still in concert with his belief. It's "They will, Lord" and "Have mercy" and "I pray." And later he falls apart. There is also this beautiful scene—"Dear Lord," I think he is talking about Francisco. He remembers watching this boy, and what fascinated me is that, by the time you tell this story, this man is dead. But still, through your style, you make him come alive. We can hear him.


And that is why it seems as if you opened a ledger and copied it.

Well, that's wonderful. I'm glad that you have that sense of it because that was my intention.

You mentioned Angela. I have a problem there. Angela seems to me to be the only one whose voice is not convincing. What is Angela's role?

Angela's role is to be a kind of foil to Abel. She represents the antithesis of the pueblo world. Yet, she and Abel are able to relate to one another on one level although they are so diametrically opposed in most of their cultural attitudes. So she enables us, I think, to see the pueblo world and Abel in a particular way, a way in which you would not otherwise be able to see him in his traditional context.

I think my criticism may derive from a comparison of Angela and Milly. Later in the book we hear Milly talk. It is a wonderful, almost Faulknerian passage as she remembers her life on the farm. It is printed in italics, but we hear her talk. Her voice is "listening"; she has her own style. Angela's is somewhat weird, a blurring sound, a compulsive cycle of sexual exploits; Angela is there, and then she vanishes. What about Milly? Would you say that while Angela is disturbing Abel, Milly has a human touch? I noticed that Milly is almost the only one Abel is communicating with. He hardly speaks throughout the whole book, except to Milly.

Yes, I would say that. I think that Milly is much more self-less than Angela. Angela is motivated by things that are deep within her that we don't know much about and she is strange, a stranger, as you suggest. Milly is not that. She is concerned about Abel and she, I think it is fair to say, wants to help him. He's certainly aware of that. He's able to perceive that she means him well, so he responds to her in a very sympathetic way. And, you know, Angela's something else. It's a sexual relationship, and I think that Angela does not mean him well, and he understands that, so he is wary of her. In a way, he plays the game with Angela. He understands that she requires a certain response on his part and he makes it. He's willing to make it; he's willing to go that far. But with Milly, I think, the feelings are much more genuine and deeper.

The priest of the sun is one character who deals explicitly with the problem of language. He uses the introduction to "Rainy Mountain." I think he accuses other people of taking the word and convoluting it, overusing it.

He says, in effect, that this is what the White man does. This is the Western tradition as far as language is concerned. They overdo it. They go too far. He talks about this in the sermon "According to John." He lets us know it's important.

To exaggerate a bit, it is Tosamah whose speech seems to be a little convoluted.

Of course. He's a trickster figure.

This is a wonderful irony.

Thank you. I agree.

There is this hipster language, such as you hear in caricatures of almost all Black preachers.

Yes. He's a trickster and he takes advantage of language in the situation and he's bright. Much of what he says, I think, is provocative and true. I think of his sermon as being a wonderful kind of commentary on language, even in his own ironic terms. What he says is thoughtful and makes sense.

What is his position in the Indian world as created in the story we have been discussing?

What is Tosamah's position? Well, I think of Tosamah as being uprooted and lost. He and Abel are poised somewhere apart from their traditional world. They are also apart from the other world, but they have fashioned an existence in that no man's land. And Tosamah has done it better than most people have because he's shrewd and a cynic and he takes advantage. He exists. He wears masks. He knows how to take a bad situation and make the best of it.

Tosamah's voice seems to be the one that will be out there, the one person who will be heard by the White man as well as by uprooted Indians in the city.

Well, perhaps that's true. Tosamah speaks the White man's language. He is able to turn the tables, as it were. He takes, after all, one of the great, classic doctrines of the Western world, The Gospel According to St. John, and he twists it around so that he condemns the whole White culture. It's a wonderful thing to do. It's a tour de force. In a way, it's fair to say that the White man, if he listens to any of these characters, will hear Tosamah. The Indian, if he hears any of these characters, will probably be most receptive to Ben Benally. When Ben Benally talks of bone craft to the traditional world and sees the sunrise on the red mesas, that's the reality of the Indian. Tosamah does both things. He speaks for both worlds, and he does it eloquently, you know. But you never know quite where he is in relation to the reality of any given moment. He wears masks.

That's right. I found him one of the most disturbing figures, and that's one of the reasons why I asked about him. The first time I read it, I thought of the story in Rainy Mountain and Tosamah's voice. It's not right. After his ranting, there is that mythical voice, and I thought, why this man? Earlier you mentioned the traditional form of the novel.

I did?

Yes, today!

Today? I don't remember. What did I say?

I'm thinking of the plot, the straight story line, the main protagonist. Although Abel may be at the center of House Made of Dawn. I don't think it is really Abel's story. All the characters have their own stories, even if they appear only once briefly, like Milly. But they are evocative, even the dead man because he is so articulate and because he has his own voice. You can imagine his whole story. In the structure of the novel and the prologue we see Abel running—does the ritual of running have a healing effect on Abel?

Well, yes!

He runs again at the end.

I think in the novel it says rather explicitly that his running provides him some of the rehabilitation. He is coming to terms again with his traditional world in the act of running. The question of whether or not he makes it, is open. I mean a lot of people want to know what happens after the last page, and I don't know. I don't know what happens to Abel finally, and I don't want to know.

Paula Gunn Allen (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3380

SOURCE: "Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination," in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 570-78.

[Allen is a Pueblo Laguna and Sioux poet, critic, essayist, novelist, and editor. In the following excerpt, she discusses the inclusion of Navajo and Pueblo beliefs in House Made of Dawn, arguing that Momaday's focus in the novel is sickness, healing, and harmony.]

As familiarity with the Bible makes Western culture accessible to the understanding, the basic texts of the Pueblo or the Navajo make their cultures, especially their literature, accessible to scholarly interpretation. It is a nearly hopeless task to explicate House Made of Dawn without such a familiarity, though an understanding of historical processes in the Southwest and of Western attitudes and lore is also important to this task. The basic meanings important to these American Indian systems are carried over into the book. To be unaware of the meanings of these symbols and their accompanying structures is to miss the greater part of the significance of the novel.

It is not impossible to read this novel when one is not conversant with the underlying symbolic structure, but the reading will result in confusion and distortion of what the writer was up to. It will also probably result in political distortions that will have an ultimately disastrous effect socially, for such is the power of the imagination over our more conscious activities. The symbols are there; the deep meanings are there. It is necessary to bring these factors into consciousness when studying the novel in order for them to have the ultimate curative or restorative effect which is the basic purpose of that book. For if elements improperly understood are imagined with sufficient care, a distortion will occur in our relationships with those misimagined persons. If House Made of Dawn is seen only as the chronicle of a man "fallen between two chairs," the impact on Indian men and women will continue to be that of victimization. For as we perceive, so we behave; and as we behave, so we create.

In order to imagine Abel as he is, the symbol-structure of the novel must be carefully examined. The underlying assumptions about the nature of reality and of the human being's place within it must be imagined truly; for Abel is not so much a man caught between two cultures and two orientations to reality as he is a medicine person who does not understand the nature of his being or of his proper function. The novel, in its structure and in its symbolic content, carefully makes this clear, though the meaning of Abel's experience is not evident unless the beliefs of the Pueblo and Navajo are taken into account. Momaday makes this point through the eyes of Angela St. John, through the eyes of Benally, and through the peculiar character of Tosamah as it contrasts with that of Abel. The identity of the protagonist is drawn through the author's personal history, through the history of the Bahkyush and through the journals of Fray Nicolás; it is apparent in the peculiar interweaving of names and places and, especially, in the sequence of events as they occur in the novel.

House Made of Dawn is an act of the imagination designed to heal; it is about the relationship between good and evil, and the proper place of a certain human being within that relationship. It is not about redemption, for redemption is not a Pueblo (indeed, not an American Indian) notion; it is not about a fall from grace. It is about sickness and disharmony, and about health and harmony. The title is the clue: "House Made of Dawn" is the first line of the chant sung on the third day of the Navajo healing ceremony called the Night Chant. It is the first prayer of the third morning ritual; the third day is designated the Day of the West. The prayer appears in the third chapter of the novel. Narrated by the Navajo friend of Abel, Ben Benally, this chapter is concerned with Abel's sojourn in Los Angeles, the major relocation center for southwestern Indians on the west coast. The prayer is sung in the Night Chant as part of the Purification section of the ceremony, and is accompanied by a rite in which a set of eight prayer offerings "sacred to gods of the shrine known as the House Made of Dawn (in the distant canyon of Tségihi)" are used to bless or purify the patient and are then sacrificed or offered to the sun. Tségihi is an ancient Pueblo ruin, and the controlling metaphor of the book can be said to be the relationship of the sun to Abel. The sun forms the central issue of life at Walatowa. It is the race which is performed each year at spring equinox as an offering of the strength of the people to the sun and as a source of strength and power among them for the coming planting season which frames the book. The peyote ceremony in Los Angeles is a sun rite, and so is one of the purification rituals which Abel must go through. It is also significant that a patient participating in a Night Chant offers himself on the last morning of his healing to the rising sun, singing these words:

       Thus will it be beautiful.
       Thus walk in beauty, my grandchild.

As these words are sung, the patient faces east and breathes in the breath of dawn.

In addition to these clues, Momaday has structured his novel in ways that are directly analogous to the major Chantway structure. The events of twelve days are chronicled, and each of these is divided into subsections that consist of flashbacks, events of that day in the past, and events surrounding the main action on that day.

According to Leland C. Wyman [in his 1975 Beautyway: A Navajo Ceremonial], there are ten or twelve more-or-less standard rituals within a major Chantway. These can vary with circumstances and the particular Chantway selected for healing the particular illness troubling the patient. The major variants which appear in House Made of Dawn include the consecration of the hogan (which does not appear in the novel until Abel returns home), a short singing, a setting-out of prayer offerings, a purification, an offering ceremony (to attract the Holy People), a cleansing, an all-night singing, a shock rite, blackening and ash-blowing, and the final dawn procedure. A feature of a healing is that various ceremonies may be tried experimentally; it seems that this may be the case with Abel. Another practice of note is the fact that the completion of a ceremonial healing may be delayed for years. Not surprisingly within a Native American framework seven years pass as Abel seeks his appropriate ceremonial and is finally healed.

In addition to the ceremonial structure, there is a layer-structure that is Pueblo at the deepest layer, Christian at the next layer, and modern Anglo at the topmost layer. Or, to phrase it another way, the book at its most superficial layer is about a displaced Indian caught between the old and the new; it is, in that sense, a sociological novel. In its middle layer it is concerned with religious conflict, that conflict which began with the first Franciscan missionaries in the Southwest and continues on to the present in the person of John Big Bluff Tosamah, missionary and Priest of the Sun. Its deepest layer is Indian: the tradition, the knowledge, the deep values of the Indian on a continent whose land and creatures are also Indian, but whose surface has been overlaid with a thin epidermis of European society. In its branching and circularity, the novel operates structurally in a way similar to the Navajo Chantway system, and in its careful divisioning it follows the number structure of 4-7-6 and 12, which are the major ceremonial numbers of the American Indian and are the classic divisions of a major chantway….

As the mythic structure of Moby Dick is the Bible, so the mythic structure of House Made of Dawn is Beautyway and Night Chant. As there are departures from the source in the former, so there are departures from the text in the latter. This is the nature of continuity: to bring those structures and symbols which retain their essential meaning forward into a changed context in such a way that the metaphysical point remains true, in spite of apparently changed circumstances. It is, perhaps, a manifestation of that law which demands that literature have a quality that appeals to humankind universally: Surely there is no more universal a theme than that of the play between good and evil, and no more universal a plot than the part humanity plays in the balance between them. There are those laws of our being which are always true; there are those processes common to humankind which always occur. It is this fact of commonality which allows a Kiowa to read and understand Moby Dick, given appropriate references, and which allows a New Englander, also appropriately guided, to read and understand House Made of Dawn.

The exchange between good and evil is not to be understood in the context of House Made of Dawn as it is understood in the context of Christian cosmology. It is the understanding that evil is an unavoidable aspect of the universe which finally allows Abel to begin his return to wholeness and to his proper place in things. It is the way of the Christian to oppose evil, and this Abel attempts to do. But it wounds him, like the arms of the dying witch, "only in proportion as Abel resisted."

Abel had thought that he could leave the pueblo and get a job, but he did not reckon with universal processes. Angela St. John was to help him get a job, but then, according to what he'd told Benally, "he got himself in trouble." The dream of the modern world was not for Abel, for it was his part to be Monster Slayer and, in his own time, to bring the people to a new world. The story, in its mythic dimension, began with Francisco—perhaps it began before Francisco, with the coming of the Bahkyush to Walatowa. Perhaps it began with the European invasion. But it was Francisco who slept with the daughter of a witch, and who abandoned her after their child was still-born. And because of his perfidy and fear, Porcingula's mother (the old Pecos bruja) cursed Abel. In the pueblo, witches traditionally transform themselves into snakes (or snakes turn themselves into humans for the purpose of witchcraft), and after the little boy is cursed by the Bahkyush bruja known as Nicolás teah-qhau, and runs, he hears a certain sound: the wind whistling around a snake hole, "and it filled him with dread. For the rest of his life it would be for him the particular sound of anguish." Indeed, for the rest of his life, as it is known to us through the novel, he would bear that curse; he would kill a snake and in turn be mortally wounded by another, the culebra Martinez in Los Angeles. Yet, had it not been for the curse and for his encounters with evil, had it not been that within his own person, perhaps because of that curse, he contained the contrary principles of light and darkness, Abel could not have made that final run and delivered that final blessing to himself and his people. Abel, like his grandfather Francisco, is a brujo himself, and so he recognizes evil. He is Snake Man and he is Bear Man. At some level, he is also Monster Slayer, prototypical hero of the Navajo. He is, like his grandfather, kin to those spirits who must run forever, keeping evil in its place. In order to do this he must first come to terms with the enormity of the thing; he must, like his grandfather, acknowledge that "evil had long since found him out and knew who he was."

The idea embodied here is perhaps strange to the Westerner. It is presumed that the forces of good are separate from the forces of evil, and the universe is conceived as a dualistic structure forever at war with itself. And so Abel perceives it, or tries to, and Tosamah perceives it so as well. But the point that is being made is that such a concept is not so: The old priest learns this, and through his journals, so does Father Olguin, who considers Fray Nicolás a saint—perhaps because the old priest was more like Francisco than like those with pious fantasies of sanctity being that condition untainted by any form of sin or evil.

The interplay between the dual forces of good and evil in this system must be recognized. It is not for human beings to attempt to annihilate either force; it might be said that it is our destiny to be forever manifesting one or the other, until we can locate the balance between them. This balance is located for Pueblos in the House of the Sun, at the mid-point of the northern and southern poles of its journey. "Just there at the saddle, where the sky is lower and brighter than elsewhere on the high black land" is the position that signals the time to clear the ditches and the "long race of the black men at dawn." The House of the Sun, which is a feature of every pueblo, is the calendar which allows the people to locate their own equilibrium in the continuous interplay of the forces of the universe; it is the ceremonial timepiece which allows a person to know "who and what and that they are."

The essential nature of pueblo life is its mysteriousness. The central issue of pueblo belief is growth and transformation; the belief in spirit is strong among them, and their life is a matter of locating the mortal being in spirit. This is not a factor of historicity, nor is it a matter of linear chronology. There is, for each individual, a perfect moment when the balance of mortal and spirit is achieved, though this moment occurs at a different point in the life of each person. Francisco achieved his perfect moment when he was a young man. He played the drum during the clan dance for the first time; he changed drums without missing a beat: "there had been nothing of time lost, no miss in the motion or the mind … and it was perfect." Afterward, the women came out and distributed food among the assembled people "in celebration of his perfect act. And from then on he had a voice in the clan, and the next year he healed a child who had been sick from birth."

In some sense, all the stories of the pueblo are about the ways in which that perfect act is achieved. The ways are different as the individuals are different; in that sense, House Made of Dawn is in the long tradition of the people, for it is a story about how a modern Indian locates his being within the center of all things, and achieves that equilibrium which is beyond words and thought.

But Abel is sick, disequilibrated; in order for him to discover himself balanced in the universe of being, he must be healed. The Navajo elements of the story are the healing elements, and the events which Abel experiences are analogous to those commonly experienced by those who have been wounded or cursed as they make their journey toward wholeness. For wholeness is the essential nature of healing: One who is whole is healed; one who is whole is holy.

Abel's trials are in the nature of the testing which the protagonist of the Chantway undergoes. Abel is subjected to at least eight such tests, and … he disobeys prohibitions established by the Holy People and gets himself into trouble. But, by this disobedience, Abel, like the Chantway protagonists, is taught the ceremonial which will be brought back to the people item by item.

What penetrates Abel's consciousness during those final brutal weeks in Los Angeles is the song Benally sings. For him, thoughts of home, the music, the stories, are the only comfort he finds; not even Milly can reach across the barriers of his isolation after he has been wounded by Tosamah, and by Martinez. Benally narrates his account: "House made of dawn. I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the sings, Beautyway and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about."

The prime feature of Navajo life is the healing. Singers devote many years to learning one Chantway perfectly. The ceremonies are handed down in the traditional way, but must be learned and paid for by the apprentice before he can practice independently. The Navajo may be the finest healers in the world; certainly, their Chantway system is one of the more complex metaphysical systems, made even more so by its relationship to Pueblo ceremonialism. The two are related, vaguely, as are Abel and Benally, who says "We're related somehow, I think. The Navajos have a clan they call by the name of that place." This relationship is an old one. It goes way back in time, beyond the coming of the Spaniards, and is as complicated in its inter-workings as the Chantway system itself. The relationship is important, for clansmen have a tighter bond than might be supposed, and this bond is of more Spirit than of earth. For clanspeople derive from the same mythic, the same archetypal source; their power and their consciousness are more closely attuned, because of their common source, than are those of many blood relatives. Then, too, Benally is a deeply traditional person himself; he'd have to be since he is able to sing parts of the Chantways and talk about what they mean. Benally is not a singer, but he is as much of one as Abel is of a priest when they meet—he is as much of one as many modern Indians will ever be, and it is enough. For through the power of his song, Abel survives the worst beating Benally has ever seen and returns to Walatowa to spend the seven days of Francisco's dying with him. After preparing the old man for burial. Abel takes up his place; running into the dawn, he performs his own perfect act of pure balance, and learns the true meaning of the songs:

He was alone and running on. All of his being was concentrated in the sheer motion of running on, and he was past caring about the pain. Pure exhaustion laid hold of his mind, and he could see at last without having to think…. He was running, and under his breath he began to sing. There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made of dawn.

So Abel finds himself healed, and in the recovery of his primal completeness he sings the chant to the sun, in the dawn light, which is sung by one who is healed.

The ceremonial is the means of achieving wholeness of being; it is the vehicle of the imagination which allows the human being to imagine himself fully—outside the bounds of social concerns, and beyond the constraints of physical imperatives. It is that part or function of consciousness where the Spirit and the Human meet and merge and become one, and it is beyond history or time as it is far from the narrow confines of pure reason…. The narrative concerning his journey toward the center of his being is analogous to the narratives connected to the Chantways and the ceremonial narratives of the Pueblo, in which the significance of events is embodied and transmitted. It is this process of working events into meaning which makes them true—more true, perhaps, than they would have been otherwise.

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Momaday, N. Scott (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1995)


Momaday, N. Scott (Literary Masters)